|Expanding Access to Science and Technology (UNU, 1994, 462 pages)|
|Session 2b: The technological experience: information resources and networks|
Coordinator: Jacques Tocatlian
The panel, chaired by J. Tocatlian, was composed of M. Almada de Ascencio, Centro de Información Científica y Humanística, Universidad Autónoma de Mexico, Mexico; Lian Yachun, Institute of Scientific and Technological Information of China, China; M. Lundu, The Copperbelt University, Zambia; and D. Torrijos, General Information Programme, Unesco, Regional Office, Thailand.
J. Tocatlian introduced the discussion by briefly reviewing the situation in the developing countries and identifying some of the numerous obstacles to be surmounted there in order to provide access to scientific and technical information. He invited the panelists to share experience gained in their respective countries and regions, by drawing attention to the problems, failures, impact, and achievements of international cooperation and assistance. He said that the panel was expected "to clarify the needs, problems, obstacles, and requirements of the developing countries and to try to elucidate why international cooperative programmes work or do not work." In so doing, he invited the panelists to refer to some of the questions raised in his paper, "A Critical Evaluation of Experiences and Strategies," delivered in Session 2A, and to address issues suggested by four main topics:
(1) Outstanding information needs of the developing countries
(2) The role and significance of information technologies
(3) Perception of international cooperation
(4) Recommendations for the future (mostly addressed to panel 2: Towards New Modalities of International Cooperation)
Each of the panelists then made a presentation.
M. Almada de Ascencio used the experience of Mexico and more generally that of Latin America to analyse the needs of the developing countries and illustrate how international cooperative programmes have responded to these needs.
She began by emphasizing the importance for Latin America of having one main language, which has facilitated communication and cooperation throughout the region. Cooperation with international organizations is important because it enhances visibility of the information sector, draws the attention of the higher authorities, and aids in starting projects that require certain information technologies. Also, legislation, which has to be undertaken at the national level, can be triggered by international cooperation, as shown by Unesco's PGI, which promoted the development of national information policies. She enumerated the many information-related problems of the developing countries and said that, "in Mexico, probably our most acute problem has been insufficient professional and technical staff adequately trained in the different information and library skills at the operational, management, and strategic levels."
Reverting to the role and significance of information technologies, she gave a detailed historical perspective of the issue in the region. The more developed countries began using information technologies in the early 1970s. In the 1980s, the use of CDS/ISIS became an important catalyst for database development. "It is difficult to establish how many thousands of small databases have been developed in Latin America." The first computerized, comprehensive Latin American indexes started in 1977. In 1986, the Mexican bibliographic databases were mounted on a Mexican host for national and international access. Since 1989, the indexes have been available on CD-ROM. The larger universities now have their own computer networks for communication between campuses.
"The use of information technologies," she added
had an important impact on our academic, professional, and technical society, which is now becoming a computer-literate society, as one can find computers even in public libraries in Mexico, and in most schools children are taught to use computers. We now look towards developing an information-conscious society, but this will still take money and, especially, adequate education. Being near computer literacy does not mean that these societies are informed.
In analysing the impact of the introduction of information technologies, M. Almada de Ascencio said that "probably one of the mistakes in the mid-1970s was looking at information technologies as 'development per se' and not as 'ways and means' and as essential infrastructure that should always be integrated into the different development programmes of each sector." It is difficult to maintain the importance of STI and IT if they are not linked to the process of knowledge creation and the sectors where they are to be used. In the 1970s and 1980s, STI was considered a separate sector. Now we understand that it is a component of larger entities. "The problem is how to enhance visibility within each sector and not as IT and STI alone; how to get decision makers, especially in developing countries, to understand that the main component for development, in each sector, is STI and the use of IT." M. Almada de Ascencio proceeded to analyse the impact of past inter national programmes in libraries and information in Latin America by giving a detailed account of all types of collaborative actions and underlining the advantages and weaknesses of each. Turning to the future she made a number of recommendations.
1. International agencies that aid developing countries in starting information services should pay particular attention to the actual demands of users and the dissemination of information as important marketing components to be included from the start in the original design.
2. Donor agencies could establish inter-agency committees to aid in the negotiation and transfer of funds for projects and help in channelling funds from different sources.
3. As nations move into global economies and open markets and governments reduce their participation in different sectors, private investment becomes important. "Thus when we speak of information we should seek both public and private funding."
4. "When we are looking for international and national cooperation, the search has to include the different sectors: industrial, governmental, and academic, because that is the only way to integrate development."
5. Regarding the areas of information, informatics, and communication, there has to be a close relation between them. "I do not think that they have to merge into one area, which would be a mistake, as each one of these fields has its own specific needs and development."
6. International agencies should strengthen their links to be able to focus collectively on high-priority projects and programmes. "Only by aiding the adequate infrastructure and 'infostructure' can there be true high standard development in science and technology, health, education, industry, and business for the well-being of societies. It is by helping developing countries help themselves that we can all look towards a brighter future."
Next, Lian Yachun took as an example the Institute of Scientific and Technological Information of China (ISTIC) to illustrate how an international organization, Unesco, responded to a national need and helped establish the services, giving in his presentation specific examples of difficulties and making recommendations for the future. The ISTIC began to set up its computerized information service system in
1984 on the basis of recommendations of Unesco consultants. During
six years of development, it gradually established a computerized information
retrieval network through the public telephone system and the China
Package Switching Data Network. There are now more than 120 remote terminal users in 50 cities throughout the country that receive information retrieval services, in Chinese and in English, both domestic and international.
The network is in fact connected to nine international systems. The ISTIC cooperated with Unesco to create the Chinese version of CDS/ISIS software and with a Swedish company to modify TRIP, a full-text database management system, to enable processing of Chinese characters.
Lian Yachun proceeded to cite examples of areas where international cooperation had helped, such as training, accomplished in cooperation with the UNDP, Unesco, and the British Council; in the creation of a union catalogue of Chinese scientific and technological periodicals, funded by the IDRC; in the area of norms and software, where, he said "the Common Communication Format, CCF, designed by Unesco, offered the best solution for bibliographic data interchange." He affirmed that "the development of the ISTIC's information systems would probably not have progressed to its present state without international cooperation."
Speaking of difficulties encountered, he said that it took more than three years from machine installation to the start of actual service operation - a length of time considered about one-third of the expected machine life. "The delay was due partly to administrative inefficiency and the relocation of the ISTIC's office and partly to the complexity of the IBM system." A major problem is the very low usage of the system. He continued: "If at the beginning we had adopted the strategy of leasing the machine and disk space from an existing computer centre instead of buying our own, priority could have been given to the choice of a software system and to providing effective services." He emphasized the fact that according to his experience, "the selection of software is often more important than the selection of hardware." He also thought that "more emphasis should be placed on library automation, as the retrieval system needs the support of a well-organized library automation system.... Since we did not pay enough attention to library management, it is often hard to locate the original documents."
Information services in China have been subsidized by the government and handled as a free public service rather than as a commodity. With budget reductions, most of these services are confronted with the problem of survival. On the other hand, "some new kinds of information services, having charged fees, become prosperous." Having cited several examples, he concluded that: (1) information services in developing countries cannot survive unless information is provided as a commodity; (2) traditional information technologies can still play an important role in developing countries; (3) in China, successful information services are not necessarily the large information centres with advanced computer equipment; and (4) priority in developing countries should be put first on providing effective services to the users in the short term, and then on building the long-term infrastructure.
One of the common problems confronted by developing countries in attempting to access internationally available information is the high cost of international telecommunication. The utilization of CD-ROM represents one way of relieving this difficulty. The other way, rather strategic, is for developing countries to harness domestic information sources and make them available internationally, for example through systems such as the INIS and INPADOC. Lian Yachun concluded his intervention by saying that international cooperation can play three roles in the developing countries: (1) a catalytic role, by bringing in international expertise when planning or designing national information systems and services; (2) technological promotion, through training or experimentation with new technologies; and (3) a promotional role, by drawing attention of higher authorities to the importance of information.
M. Lundu then took the floor and reflected on the origins of the information gap between developed and developing countries, postulating that the information gap is both a myth and a reality, depending upon one's standpoint. At the core of the tradition to characterize third world countries as underdeveloped "is, undoubtedly, the view that these countries have never possessed nor do they possess knowledge, information, ideas, and culture of value that could be transferred to or copied by other countries." Quite a number of theories have been offered to explain this situation. "From one we learn that the explanation of this problem lies in political economy. ... From the other, emphasis is on racial differentiation.... Others stress economic factors, geography, or lack of innovative ideas...." For the past 30 or so years, historian Basil Davidson has endeavoured to explore, from a historical perspective, what tropical Africa's most impressive achievements before European colonial powers invaded the continent. He argues, recalled M. Lundu, that "it was indeed a mistaken notion to believe that African people possessed no institutions, culture, knowledge, and even technology of their own until the white man introduced these on the continent."
Information and knowledge production and transmission from generation to generation have been part of the African way of life from time immemorial. "The unfortunate thing," said M. Lundu "was the fact that this information and knowledge were never organized in permanent records before the coming of foreigners on the continent. This meant that such knowledge and information as existed were scattered...." The colonial powers in Africa decided to change everything, including the method of generating, preserving, communicating, and transferring information and knowledge. Now professionals in the third world depend to a great extent on the information and knowledge generated in the developed countries. The main problem is how to reduce the gap. M. Lundu approached the problem from three different angles: (1) the "two worlds" interdependence, especially in technology and knowledge production, utilization, and transfer; (2) the role of education and training in supporting interdependence; and (3) the need for the third world to identify its own needs and priorities.
On "two worlds interdependence," he said that,
no doubt, during the last 300 years of contact between Europe and Africa, the North has learnt useful things from the South. Materially, the North gained more from the South during this period. Now, it is the turn of the South to technically and technologically gain from the North using the Japanese-Taiwan model that stresses human resources development as a strategy for the transfer of technology to deprived areas.
On the second angle, he recalled that education and training tend to be, in their negative forms, an effective vehicle for indoctrination. The colonial type of education introduced in the midst of unsuspecting Africans was what Farrell refers to as "static technology" - the kind of knowledge that enables the possessor to carry out certain routine tasks and functions successfully. What is needed are education and training that impart "dynamic technology" the kind of knowledge that makes the possessor understand the scientific principles governing his work and as such enables the possessor to improve, modify, or change it to suit changing circumstances. With reference to international experts and consultants that try to help Africa, M. Lundu said that, "without proper application of dynamic technology to third world problems, I am afraid the gap will continue to widen." Foreign experts, if indeed they possess dynamic technology, should improve, modify, or change their knowledge to suit the local environment.
On the third aspect, he cited the IDRC as an example of an international organization concerned about third world needs and priorities. Before 1987, the IDRC had approached the issue of developing information systems from the point of view of its objectives as a donor agency. The IDRC Regional Office in Nairobi later recommended increased involvement of African administrators, researchers, and information specialists in the development of a relevant strategy for sub-Saharan Africa, which proved successful. In concluding his intervention, M. Lundu recommended specific objectives for the establishment of "centres for appropriate technologies" in Africa, such as the development of low-cost appropriate technologies and the adaptation of indigenous technologies; the publication and diffusion of appropriate technology material; the provision of technical assistance and education in appropriate technologies and collaboration with local crafts people and farmers as well as with national and international organizations that promote appropriate technologies for improving the quality or life of underprivileged people.
D. Torrijos took the floor to discuss the issue of obstacles impeding the development of and access to STI by developing countries and suggested a number of indicators.
She first recalled that in the information scene, there had been some dramatic changes, especially in countries that had moved up on the world's development scale. Why had these changes been so limited? She suggested it was because "of the inability of the concerned institutions and individuals to 'mainstream information'." She proposed the following as relevant indicators: (I) awareness and appreciation of the value of information as a vital national resource for development; (2) skill in accessing and using information by the general population; (3) political commitment for its sustained development; (4) systematic identification and mobilization of "key players" in STI at various levels; and (5) more active involvement of information providers in the national development process.
Wherever these indicators are substantially developed, the role of information in the development process is visibly significant.
For developing countries, to get to that point is very difficult, because of certain political realities. When resources are severely limited and socioeconomic conditions are extremely difficult, short-term, instantly visible projects will get priority attention and not long-range, difficult to measure, and intangible projects, no matter how sound and logical they may be.
It is for this very reason that external assistance is very important, especially when national authorities have only a poor appreciation and understanding of the problem. The practice of tying up assistance strictly with government priorities will automatically eliminate information projects in many cases because they are not on government priority lists. This aspect should be kept in mind.
D. Torrijos further expanded on the role of regional and international cooperation, enumerating many advantages of such cooperation. She recommended that international organizations and donor agencies develop a new form of partnership with developing countries that recognized the increasing stock of competent and able human resources in developing countries. Furthermore, she emphasized the urgent need to improve the skills of information personnel in negotiating and mobilizing support and sources to finance their projects.
She then provided some further information on Unesco's PGI and various international, regional, and national activities undertaken under this programme for improving the flow of information and enhancing the capacities of countries to access and to use information.
Torrijos concluded by commenting on the question raised by J. Tocatlian in his paper, as to whether STI was still an appropriate concept for international cooperation. She first recalled that harnessing science and technology for development had been widely accepted among politicians. Consequently, STI became an excellent guinea-pig for developing various concepts in information management, handling, processing, and dissemination, without touching the more sensitive areas of communication, such as government propaganda and various types of mass media. She asserted that "it is [now] time to integrate STI into the multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary stream of national life.... It is time to integrate the social, human, and economic dimensions of science and technology to give it more practical meaning for all levels and types of information users." She strongly supported the concept of the "social use of information" in J. Tocatlian's paper and spoke against the maintenance of the "purity" of sectoral information. "There is a great need to create the necessary interfaces and interconnections. This is where information technologies will find the most urgent and invaluable applications."
After these presentations by the panelists, discussion began on the issue of information transfer versus technology transfer. Zhou Chaochen recalled that access to science and technology means obtaining scientific and technical information, understanding it, and subsequently using or applying it. Information technology, on the other hand, is mainly concerned with information transfer only. How can one coordinate information transfer with technology transfer?
According to M. Lundu, information transfer and technology transfer are sometimes interchangeable. In his opinion, what is important is the transfer of information or technology that enables the user to modify, adapt, improve, or change it to suit changing circumstances - this being technical know-how.
M. Almada de Ascencio agreed that information and technology transfer should consider not only equipment but also, and above all, know-how. It should consider the adoption or adaptation of imported technologies as well as technological innovations undertaken within the country, taking full account of the local environment. She added that developing countries have to close gaps. They cannot receive information and technology that has become obsolete elsewhere or that is not suited to their own environment.
S. Robertson confirmed that technology is not about equipment but about know-how. Information technologies must to some degree be language-specific, culture-specific, and environment-specific.
C. Correa, commenting on the session papers and discussion in general, remarked that science and technology are too important to permit dealing with the problems of access to both of them under the same principles and rules. Access to science and access to technology deserve to be treated separately. He then reverted to the issue of information technologies, asking how these technologies could affect access to scientific information by developing countries.
D. Torrijos commented that information technology presents a promising possibility for improving the image of library and information services in many respects. For example, it has enabled researchers, scientists, and even policy makers to go to the library and use computer-based services. These same users would never go near traditional libraries but would send assistants instead to make literature searches for them. But the magic of being computer-literate, able to access information using information technology, is very alluring; it raises interest in and ultimately earns support for these services that provide access to science and technology. According to D. Torrijos, this aspect should be exploited to the maximum by information providers.
S. Robertson commented that there are many information technologies not just computers and telecommunications. Perhaps the earliest information technology is writing. And there are many others that should be kept in mind in such deliberations.
The next intervention was made by W. Rouse, who thought that it was being assumed in the discussion, perhaps only implicitly, that the developed world's information technology worked well and, therefore, was appropriate for transfer to the developing countries. In fact, according to him, these technologies do not work well and the developing countries could do better by focusing on their own needs rather than on the developed countries' technologies.
D. Torrijos reiterated that information technology has an image-building aspect, which can raise awareness and appreciation of the value and use of information, and it must be so exploited to get political support for building information infrastructures and services. The goal in cooperative programmes should be to enhance the capacities of the developing countries to become sufficiently familiar with information technologies to enable them to make intelligent decisions about what to choose and thus avoid the mere mimicking of developed countries' systems. Instead, developing countries will concentrate on what they actually need.
On the general subject of new technologies, S. Robertson made the following comment: new technologies do not in general replace old ones; rather they widen the possibilities of use and applications. Often, competing technologies coexist; new technologies complement old ones. According to Robertson, only very seldom do old technologies die.
The discussion then moved to issues related to the development of information infrastructures and services in the developing countries. Lian Yachun took the floor to state that with the gradual development of science and technology in the developing countries, more and more information will be produced in these countries, for which particular infrastructures will be needed. When the value of this indigenous information is perceived, these services will become international. He continued that in view of the present limited resources, priority should be given in the developing countries to providing effective services for existing users, rather than to long-term targets.
The next intervention was made by C. Cooper, who noted that so far the discussion had been supply oriented. Very little had been said about who makes use of information systems. He said that "until we know more about information needs and requirements in the production and service sectors in the developing countries, we cannot really make suitable judgements about the significance of the evident technology gap."
M. Almada de Ascencio referred to her paper where she had mentioned that the developing countries should now shift to market-oriented, demand-based information systems and that international organizations could help countries by focusing on projects that are user oriented. The importance of the use of front-ends and intelligent computer systems is that these systems are aimed precisely at enhancing the usefulness of information systems. "All information services and products should be planned, designed, and implemented based on current and potential demand, as there is more awareness on the part of the user, even in developing countries, as to the use of information." This does not mean, concluded M. Almada de Ascencio that we have arrived at having information-conscious societies in all sectors.
C. Cooper continued with a question about whether there were information systems for specified sectors, such as industry, and who was using them.
M. Almada de Ascencio explained that in Mexico, for example, it had taken many years for users in industry to feel that they really needed to invest a fair amount of money for information. It has taken time and effort and the evolution of technologies to establish systems that will help intermediaries aid industrialists to solve their problems. "Government protectionist regulations did not induce industry to think they really needed information systems." During the economic crisis and in the opening of markets larger industries realized the importance of investing in the development of specialized information services. However, small industries cannot afford such services.
Next, N. Streitz focused on the information needs of actual researchers. He said that the availability of databases was not enough; actual researchers rarely needed them. Informal communication means, such as e-mail, were necessary. He added that one could find the state of the art in the grey literature and not in the archival publications, which report results that are two to three years old.
Replying to this statement, N. Dusoulier affirmed that scientists needed more than personal contacts and exchanges within the invisible college which in any case is reserved for the elite. Databases and data banks are the memory of science and give to all scientists in the world the possibility of knowing about research results. Scientists from the developing countries have the same right.
G. Johannsen took the floor to draw attention to the situation regarding telecommunication in the developing world. With reference to new information technologies? he emphasized the crucial importance of good training when introducing these technologies. He said that the costs and quality of telecommunication made even the use of telephone or fax difficult or almost impossible in many countries. Therefore, on-line access to databases or computerized journals will not be practical for a long time for many. He stated that the usage of CD-ROMs will be a better solution. Johannsen pointed out that in East Germany, one very useful achievement after unification was the installation of new telecommunication equipment, which permits normal communication. The situation in many Eastern European countries and developing countries is such that the best possible assistance at this point would be the installation of state-of-the-art telecommunication systems "rather than the newest high-tech, fancy equipment." Speaking of Eastern Europe, he said that science was in a terrible state in that part of the world and that numerous scientists in all kinds of fields may be tempted to leave their countries. International projects have to be organized to promote research in these countries.