In the light of explorations during the Definition Phase, the following constraints have been identified. These constraints would determine the actual design of a "viable" product from a number of different perspectives. In each case, the implications for product development and design are indicated.
The consortium is agreed that the product is of relatively little use as a one-off, data compilation/publication exercise. The principal partners have very long-term commitments to the maintenance of their databases. The kind of data held can only be accumulated and refined over extended periods of time in response to funding constraints and opportunities. The partners seek to take advantage of evolving hardware and software to reconfigure their data activities, as and when this is possible, in order to facilitate access and ensure relevance. However, within this long-term developmental framework, the partners recognize the need for specific one-off products of immediate value.
Now and in the future, the information circulation basic to this project is highly dependent on constituencies sensitive to the manner in which it is obtained and used. The principal characteristic is some form of "non-profit" orientation. In the case of the UIA, much of its information is obtained from international non-profit bodies, whether intergovernmental or nongovernmental. In the case of WCMC, much of its information is obtained from networks of "volunteers", whether professional scientists or dedicated amateurs. As noted below, updating and improvement of the information is primarily dependent on the involvement of these constituencies as partners/users.
The principal partners have ensured that the long-term development of their data activities is economically viable, whether through sale of information or contractual services relating to such information. This principle must necessarily govern the development of any joint initiative.
Although cost recovery is essential, especially in a highly competitive information environment, means must nevertheless be found to ensure the involvement of the constituencies identified above, notably through differential pricing schemes.
In the evolving information society, provision of information on any topic is necessarily of great interest to a range of bodies. These include:
- intergovernmental organizations with specific mandates: a number of such bodies, whether international, regional or nationally-oriented, will necessarily develop information strategies, more or less independently of each other but possibly in direct competition with one another;
- international professional and scientific bodies concerned with the conceptual treatment of particular categories of information;
- advocacy and activist bodies who may be impatient with certain criteria and procedures;
- commercial bodies seeking to provide or exploit information, whether for profit or as a public relations exercise in support of other profit-making initiatives; these may include high tech companies seeking to add content to their competitive advantage in information technology.
Such stakeholders have a tendency to compete savagely for resources and constituencies, possibly through the formation of strategic partnerships. This creates a highly dynamic environment that is not necessarily conducive to the long-term development of the kinds of data with which this project is concerned. Incidents in which one initiative is undermined or marginalized by another will become even more common. Specifically coalitions of stakeholders will emerge that will:
- either invest heavily in subsets of data covered by this project; or
- invest heavily in more general projects that will effectively subsume the complete range of data covered by this project, whether superficially or in detail.
Competition will, however, be such as to render such coalitions relatively unstable, especially if they have to satisfy stringent return on investment criteria, or survive changes of political fashion. Groups like the UIA and WCMC will remain vulnerable to seemingly incidental policy changes on the part of better-resourced groups that focus on short-term return on investment or public relations pay-offs.
The stakeholders identified above will naturally become progressively more preoccupied with copyright issues, especially where the information itself is perceived as the key asset, rather than the processes through which it acquires value. It is to be expected that information monopolies will develop, replicating the often-crude economic history of more tangible products.
This project will therefore be faced with several copyright constraints associated with:
- information furnished "freely" by its constituencies who are attentive to what further use is made of it;
- third party databases, which could be usefully associated in any pattern of Web hyperlinks from the product; such third parties may be non-profit or for-profit;
- the partners in this project, both contractual and cooperative, who need to be sensitive to how they use or refer to each other’s data.
As current debates on information on the Web indicate, copyright is liable to severely impede the free flow of information, especially where some element of cost recovery is essential to the viability of the enterprise. This may be compensated by three extreme tendencies:
- evolution of very high cost "quality" information products;
- trivialization of a wide range of, seemingly comprehensive, "popular" information products; and
- proliferation of large, overlapping bodies of public domain information lacking any integrative framework.
This project is predicated on the importance of widespread information dissemination to those who can make effective use of it—according to their own criteria. This objective features in the statutory mandates of the principal partners. Any such dissemination process has to avoid the inhibiting constraints indicated above. It is in fact essential as one part of the cycle through which the information is maintained, renewed and expanded.
The other part of the cycle is the actual feedback from end-users and interested parties capable of correcting and improving the information.
The weakness of any product based purely on dissemination is that the costs of updating the information can become prohibitively high, although these may be reduced by allowing longer periods between updates. The weakness of any product based on data capture alone is that as a research project this runs the risk of being incapable of widely disseminating the results of that research in an effective manner.
Content and quality
The scope of the envisaged product is a source of particular constraints. On the one hand, there is a need for data that meets scientific standards of evidence. At the same time, and in the absence of such high quality data, there is a need for indicative information, which can trigger warning signals and further inquiry, as appropriate.
In a policy-sensitive environment, the information also needs to be seen to reflect opinions of significant constituencies, especially where the issues are controversial and the subject of diverse interpretations. Failure to reflect such views, and the dynamics of any controversy, can only undermine the credibility of the product to wider constituencies and would then reinforce competing information projects. There is therefore merit in the complementary emphases of the two principal partners in this project.p>Given the economic constraints, an extremely pragmatic approach is necessarily required in acquiring and processing information into the databases. Absence of information, or lack of resources to process it, is a reality. Priorities are therefore important, as well as increased reliance on an extensive network of dedicated end-users capable of compensating for such deficiencies on issues of interest to them.
Moderation and maintenance of information
Both principal partners already operate as processors of information supplied to them, whether deliberately or incidentally, by extensive networks. The information can only be maintained effectively by the partners acting as moderators on proposed inputs from a multitude of sources. Both partners are making the transition between non-electronic and electronic input from such supplier networks.
For the product to be viable over the longer term, this moderation function needs to be organised as a buffer between raw input and widely disseminated output. As with any moderated electronic mailing list, provision needs to be made for filtering input. One approach would be to channel feedback into one of a range of buffers pertaining to each database record. These would range from "authorised" to "unknown", whilst excluding eccentric and abusive feedback. Users would then be free to limit or extend their perusal of these categories of comment.
Beyond the moderation function would be the effort to process such feedback into the relevant core database records, as resources permitted. In this area, the principal partners have a strategic advantage, demonstrated over many years, through the priority they give to "adding value" to data rather than simply repackaging and redistributing them. Note that this approach ensures access to feedback information, even when resources are not available to process it in detail.
The conventional approach to project financing through short-term institutional budgets makes it difficult to sustain long-term projects which cross programmatic and institutional boundaries. Many challenges to policy making, however, call upon information sensitive to cross-sectoral relationships.
It is therefore important to organise the product in such a way as to permit specific short-term financing of information on particular issues (whether "charismatic", "fashionable", "popular", or "priority") without undermining the comprehensive scope of the project. One approach is through specific forms of sponsorship.
Evolution of information technology
The rate of evolution of information technology is such that any longer-term product can only be based on the ability to shift continually between technologies and combinations of technologies, as proves appropriate.
At this particular time, one or more combinations of CD-ROM and Web technologies are the obvious focus of attention. The hybrid "CD-ROM with Web links" offers interesting possibilities. The situation may be summarised as follows:
- CD-ROM product with data from the two principal partners, cross-linking to each other on the disk;
- as above, with the addition of Web access either to the partner’s databases or to third parties, or both;
- direct user Web access to the partners’ databases, selectively cross-referencing each other and third party databases; and/or
- queries of Internet resources either directly from the CD-ROM or partners’ websites.
In considering the CD-ROM option, the key issue is how end-users:
- acquire updated information more recent than on the CD—clearly Web access is an attractive option;
- supply feedback updating information on the CD-ROM or on the Website—again "mail to" facilities via the CD or directly on the Web are an attractive option.
Trends in dissemination of electronic information
It is expected that the following, often contradictory, trends will continue to develop vigorously:
- dissemination of information free of cost, and copyright, via the Web by organizations not needing to recover costs. Typically, this will include intergovernmental organizations and nongovernmental organizations with specific sectoral interests.
- dissemination of information free of cost, as above, but with specific copyright constraints
- dissemination of information accessible for a fee, but free of copyright.
- dissemination of information accessible for a fee and with copyright constraints. This category will be the major focus of commercial information development. It will necessarily be designed to exclude or undermine competing services operating at minimal cost and free of copyright.
These trends are expected to become especially marked in the case of non-text information, namely the multimedia content which is a major focus of INFO2000: images (photos, maps, graphs), sound files, video files and virtual reality files.
A distinction may be usefully made between information relevant to suddenly emergent crises (requiring immediate response) and information relevant to the considered articulation of policy options. In both cases, however, an unpredictable range of factors will determine the scope of what is considered relevant. These may include, for example, tolerance for complexity versus need for simplicity (political, institutional, cultural, and personal). Together these then lead to a particular focus which excludes ‘external’ factors labelled by the user as ‘secondary’ or ‘low-priority’—although advocates of opposing policies, who may also wish to use the product, may question this judgement.
The challenge for this project is to provide an information tool, which through its comprehensive scope adapts to narrower or broader needs as required—thus providing the user with a sense of context for any specific environmental concern. At the same time it is clear that where there is a need for detail, greater than that accumulated by the project, the product will serve best when it points on to more specialised sources, notably in a Web environment.
It is important to stress the need to develop a product that carries meaning for both policy-makers and their constituencies—as users with different needs. Failing to do so encourages the latter to make use of other sources of information, creating a gap in comprehension, which may be significant, when policy-makers seek a mandate for their initiatives.
Comprehension and multimedia
"Why we put so much emphasis on audio-visual means of portraying goal, trend, condition, projection, and alternative? Partly because so many valuable participants in decision-making have dramatizing imaginations. … They are not enamoured of numbers or of analytic abstraction. They are at their best in deliberations that encourage contextually by a varied repertory of means, and where an immediate sense of time, space, and figure is retained."
(Harold D Lasswell, The transition toward more sophisticated procedures In: Davis B. Bobrow and J.L. Schwartz (Ed.), Computers and the Policy-Making Community: applications to international relations, Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 307-314).
The principal partners specialise primarily in data in text form, although numeric data, maps and other display structures may be associated with this or calculated from it. The key policy-related issue is how such information can best be rendered comprehensible. The interest of the partners in multi-media development is therefore intimately related to how such interactive media can improve comprehension of more complex patterns of environmental information than is possible through pure texts, tables or traditional graphics. In this sense, the key to the product’s success lies in the development of an interactive learning environment. The challenge is to facilitate the emergence of meaning rather than simply the collection and dissemination of information for its own sake.