Intercept: Proposal for infoDev activity


Reviewer 2: A tool for sustainable development encompasses literally everything. The project would benefit from more modesty and specificity.

We recognise that our proposal was in places somewhat vague on specifics and at the same time appeared to have goals so broad that they were all-encompassing. This is partly because this project is intimately interconnected with other projects which have more extensive goals. It is also because some of the partner organizations’ goals, which are furthered by this project, are founded on broad visions and longstanding activity and achievement (as indicated by the range of international reference books produced by the UIA and WCMC on a regular basis). However, this may have produced the effect of over-optimism and over-statement. Whilst our vision is large we could certainly have achieved more modesty by focusing it on the specific objectives of this project. We stress that roughly one-third of this project is experimental, with outcomes that are imprecise; two-thirds is based upon firm development lines with predictable outcomes. We hope that the workpackage descriptions and other materials now supplied help reassure on this point.

We submit that this project is "modest" in its pragmatic approach to use of resources in processing very diverse data under conditions that are problematic for virtually all other operations we know. It is also modest in seeing itself as only one part of the bigger picture of sustainable development information and employing as a key strategy internetworking with the other parts (this point was made above in relation to long-term goals). It is also modest in assuming that there is far more wisdom to be garnered from individuals prepared to interact with it than has been compiled by collective efforts to date.

We suspect the reviewer would like us to withdraw our claim that this is a tool for sustainable development. One of our problems in being more specific is that just as the scope of sustainable development is indeed literally everything (at least in the eyes of the large diversity of bodies that consider their own efforts in this light), so are the UIA’s databases. Like an elephant, a 20-year-old project that has catalogued, profiled and interlinked the world’s problems, solutions and human potential on the basis of information provided by international organizations (which it also re-profiles annually) does not sit comfortably in the modest category. WCMC’s databases are similarly global in scope and catalogue increasingly broad fields of information related to biological conservation. While content-wise the infoDev project is a mere extension of these expansive bases, it is unrealistic to deny their presence.

Unfortunately, from a policy and information perspective, it could be dangerous to be too forthright in indicating what a tool for sustainable development should exclude (and consequently which bodies are effectively irrelevant to that process). Sustainable development might usefully be explored as a crisis of "specificity". There is a plethora of "viable" specific projects that offer little conceptual challenge to funders. And yet somehow they do not successfully encompass or respond to the challenges of sustainable development. Specific dam-building projects aggravate social conditions, etc. In contrast there is a dearth of viable cross-sectoral projects, which do indeed constitute a conceptual challenge because of the lack of an adequate interdisciplinary frameworks. Governance, like sustainable development, is about interdisciplinary issues and these do encompass literally everything.

Reviewer 2: INFO2000 is presumably enjoying some success (although this is still under-development and the jury is not in) because it is a relatively focussed tool. Why is this one so incredibly broad and vague?

It is not clear whether "INFO2000" refers here to the European Commission programme as a whole, or as a shorthand reference to the partners' involvement as initiators of one of the many INFO2000 projects, namely that on information for biodiversity conservation.

On the assumption that it is the latter which is the "relatively focussed tool", it is appropriate to note that, on the UIA side at least, that project endeavours to clarify contextual (often subjective, and non-scientific) information to issues of biodiversity conservation. This is done by building up profiles on problems and strategies that impact on biodiversity conservation -- or which are impacted by efforts at biodiversity conservation. Accepting value biases, it treats equally the priorities that different constituencies -- including the World Bank -- perceive as most important and to which they prefer to allocate resources. Since this covers millions of plant and animals species, it is indeed rather ambitious and comprehensive but the procedures are pragmatic. Indicative searches indicate that biodiversity issues, at least indirectly, impact some 60 percent of problems. With some 100,000 database entries and over 250,000 hyperlinks it may indeed be "broad", but it is questionable whether it can be usefully said to be "vague".

The policy challenge of the times is that it is relatively easy to design specific information systems and policies addressed to specific issues. There is a multitude of them. But unfortunately the challenge lies in the manner in which these policies undermine each other -- as typified by the costs of the well-known problem of successively digging up and repairing the same road to lay gas, electricity, sewage, telephone and optical lines because of an incapacity to coordinate across agencies. In information terms, there is little capacity to deal with such "broad" issues and "shared" territory -- and the challenge is greater as the challenges range across health, agricultural, educational, security and other issues.

This project endeavours to respond to this challenge -- the challenge of governance -- which is a major issue for most countries at this time. The question as to whether countries, or the world, are inherently "ungovernable" is as yet unresolved. It is however clear that this challenge cannot be effectively met by reliance on overly specific information systems; nor information systems that deliver old information rather than integrate new insights.

Reviewer 2: Why not wait till INFO2000 is more of a proven product before leaping in to extend it to the entire field of sustainable development? I would also suggest trimming back the proposed project to be more of a logical extension of INFO2000: development of tools to extend the usefulness of data sets that have been put together under INFO2000.

This comment is taken to relate to the biodiversity conservation project within the INFO2000 programme.

The point is accepted. There are both advantages and disadvantages to waiting, which may weigh up to be about the same. One disadvantage is losing personnel who are currently involved with the ideas and activity, notably those of the non-remunerated partners of this project. Another is forfeiting cost savings due to overlapping of activities.

The INFO2000 project builds on the proven "raw materials" of UIA and WCMC databases, currently "marketed" as a myriad of products. INFO2000 is another shopfront. The datasets that are being "put together" for INFO2000 are, in large part, literally that: meaning integrated rather than compiled from scratch. The hard work, as we all know, is making sense of data.

The reason why the INFO2000 project has the specific subject focus of biodiversity conservation is that this is the specific concern of WCMC. For the UIA this means focus on a subset of its data on problems and strategies – which provide the context for "biodiversity conservation" as described above. The entire field of sustainable development is however already covered by these UIA databases -- which have been developed since the early 1970s as part of the long-term Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. For example, the databases have extensive coverage of development issues, notably with the use of World Bank material.

The "modesty" of ambition requested by the reviewer is achieved by varying the depth of coverage on any specific issue according to the editorial resources and material readily to hand -- and the copyright constraints on the manner in which that material can be used. The request for infoDev funding is partly in order to improve the quality of coverage on issues that have been only modestly treated in the past.