Intercept: Proposal for infoDev activity


Partnership with international organizations

Reviewer 1: Surprisingly, the proposal doesn't attempt to overcome the financial paradox described above by fully addressing the potential role of partnerships with international organizations (e.g. The World Bank) which have a responsibility (albeit a newly-defined one) to provide knowledge-based services to their clients.

The partners in this project are alike with the World Bank, and certain other international organizations, in holding a responsibility to provide knowledge-based services. Each organization recognising this as its mandate must find their own economic means to do so. It is not immediately apparent from the reviewer’s comment how partnership with the World Bank, for example, would overcome the financial paradox dealt with above -- other than by seeking project funding through appropriate Bank channels, as is happening. Is the reviewer suggesting we are coy or have a blind spot in our approach to the World Bank or other international organizations? If so, we may need more pointed suggestions.

We would be delighted to consider offers of World Bank partnership other than funding. In support of this we are prepared to send our personnel to Washington to meet with Bank staff and advisers.

Our past experiences with partnerships account for a strategic approach for this project that is not dependent on particular partnerships, however "logical" in principle, but rather on partnership building wherever and whenever it proves possible in practice. The degree of "partnership collaboration" within the project frame could also vary in practice in the light of experience and need. The Web environment is ideal in that it offers the possibility of rapid partnership formation (and dissolution) in response to changing needs and priorities -- without requiring the administrative overhead traditionally associated with information exchange with intergovernmental bodies that are often subject to momentary political pressures that undermine the integrity of longer-term projects.

It is in this sense that the UIA has a long record of "collaborating" minimally with some 20,000 international organizations by requesting and receiving information on their organization profiles and on the problems and strategies that engage them. Such "minimalist partnership" is in fact vital to information collection in circumstances in an information society increasingly riven by mutual suspicion (this is not a generalization, but certainly true of some of UIA’s more problematic exchanges).

Reviewer 1: The synergies of such relationships (Client-NGO/Service Provider-International Organization) are potentially significant, and include: (i) improved dialogue on sustainable development between users, (ii) improved policy relevance of data / services provided, (iii) advice/assistance to international organizations in mobilization of knowledge resources, (iv) identification of data gaps, if these exist, (v) coordination with in country development activities and, (v) offset of costs to poorest countries - to ensure accessibility.

This is certainly correct in principle. Such synergies inspire us to venture this proposal.

Reviewer 1: There is a persistent view of international organizations (WHO, WB UNEP, UNESCO) as funding sources, rather than partners with significant bodies of knowledge on sustainable development which should be mobilized.

It is certainly the case that the majority of those seeking partnerships with such bodies lead off with a dollar request. Unfortunately this view is also held to a high degree within such intergovernmental bodies which consequently have considerable difficulty in envisaging or discussing any form of collaboration that is not directly attached to a budget line with a dollar value attached. There is no understanding of the potential of "zero-cost projects" or budget lines and no study has been made of such opportunities. A specific instance of this is that UIA collaboration with UNESCO, along some of the lines discussed in this proposal, has been "under discussion" for two years with no conclusion in sight despite explicit approval from its DG. In addition to systemic blocks regarding non-financial collaborations, there may be considerable difficulty in producing a coherent approach to "transversal" projects that feed into departmental rivalries, as again from our experience seems to be true for UNESCO.

As an aside, for a balanced view of the possibilities, a franker articulation is required of what tends to undermine ideal and logical partnership schemes, whether it be personality issues, greed, or institutional empire building. The recently publicized instance of the European Commission withholding scheduled payments to NGOs for political reasons is an example of the prevailing mind-set and calls for strategic wariness in the case of partnerships with intergovernmental institutions – if an NGO is to be dependent upon such funding for its survival.

It is probable that the situation may become a great deal more flexible when the issues become "electronic" rather than "administrative" and political.

Reviewer 1: A similar concern relates to the organizations participating in the project. Given the large number of conservation / biodiversity information networks which exist, it is surprising that the proposal doesn't explicitly include some of the major data providers in the proposal.

The project is designed to build on existing strengths. WCMC, for example, has a wide range of operational links and partnerships with agencies in conservation/biodiversity networks in which it participates. UIA has relationships with some of the same such organizations, and some others in addition. DA has established links with over 2,000 Indian organizations and so extends this combined network into the national, regional and local levels of India.

It is a characteristic of the international information business that there is a radical difference between "vapourware" and operational services. We believe that potential partners are wise to avoid extensive discussions ahead of a concrete basis for partnering. Before any agreement is reached for InfoDev support, this project will have a very extensive range of interlinked databases operational on-line with the aid of INFO2000 funding -- and integrating stakeholder contributions. It is in this concrete form that meaningful discussions can be undertaken with new potential partners.

The project itself is not seen as requiring extensive partnerships to take off. It is a fact that many potential partners are currently highly active in forming their own coalitions, in support of, or in competition with, one another. This is a characteristic of the information business. It is not our intention to add to this phenomenon or strain already straightened resources of other organizations for no good reason other than claim to shared interest. As indicated above, the project will form (and dissolve) partnerships throughout its existence in response to concrete mutual information needs and priorities.

Shared governance/ funding

Reviewer 1: Surely, these agencies (e.g. IUCN, WRI, UNEP), which are presumably the source of much of the data to be provided through the system, should be explicitly represented in the governance structure of the service (which also needs clarification). This would also improve buy-in by these agencies, provide access to existing in-country networks (e.g. InfoTERRA) and provide some insurance against financial risk.

This project, and the integration of databases between UIA and WCMC (an affiliate of IUCN, WWF and UNEP), is dependent on being "light" on governance and administration (and their associated costs) and "heavy" on operational links between data elements that are of value to users. This philosophy would be extended to partnerships with other institutions. Potential partners, especially if they have their own databases, tend to be understandably reluctant to constrain their own data strategies in response to others. However, by the use of hyperlinks (and especially query links between such databases), real "operational partnership" can be achieved without the requirement for extensive "administrative partnership". This approach does not preclude greater involvement in governance as practical issues emerge -- but again it would be hoped that most such issues could be articulated, discussed and handled electronically.

We envisage a shared governance structure with a light hand, mainly for coordination purposes. This is possible because the project proponents are already embarked upon activities that are precursors to this project. They know their next steps. There is no foreseeable requirement for rulemaking and protocols. The association between UIA and DA goes back 20 years, both in professional project work and governance (DA is represented on the board of UIA). It is worth noting that the relatively limited funds requested for administration of this project, notably for travel to meetings, is because it is light on governance. Face-to-face meetings will be devoted to technical exchanges and learning, rather than reporting and governance.

On the issue of "buy-in" by intergovernmental agencies and others, we would rather take the route of building on existing partnerships and demonstrating capability to potential new partners before seeking further involvement. As explained in "Financial Sustainability" above, through synergistic support of related projects, the financial risk of this project has already be spread. Any new partnerships must be a quid pro quo arrangement that makes sense first in terms of service delivery, second in terms of injecting funds. This approach enables us to keep our financial risk low and focus on doing the work rather than raising money. The infoDev funds would be sufficient for us now to bridge the development gap between where INFO2000 leaves off and testing and building capability in the Indian context.

The linkup with in-country data sources is not a specific objective of this proposal. This will be done where appropriate, but we see this as the role of others. We note that INFOTERRA is proposing to adopt a decentralized multi-sector approach at the national level, to enable greater stakeholder participation in the provision of an integrated environmental information service. This would be accomplished through the establishment of a networking partnership of major environmental information service providers and stakeholder groups (perhaps we would be a part of this new partnership). According to the programme's Advisory Committee, "a radical re-invention of INFOTERRA … is needed if it is to meet the public demand for better access to global environmental information in the new millennium." We believe that projects such as our will provide valuable inputs to this process. Some input will inevitably happen as a result of staff members of our partner organizations already being advisors INFOTERRA.

Reviewer 1: Indeed, following the line of these arguments, the proposal clearly demonstrates the tensions which exist between financial sustainability of information services in a cash-strapped environment, and the responsibility of these same agencies to deliver on their development objectives. Clearly the best possible world would include a comprehensive partnering of technical service providers, scientific experts / data gatherers, development agencies and commercial organizations, with all bringing their resources to bear on the issues of sustainable development. This proposal is an attempt to address a small component of this problem. It may be that this proposal represents a useful, if modest, step in the development of this comprehensive relationship - but it should clearly acknowledge these long-term goals and attempt to place the project in context.

The reviewer’s point is well made. His/her ‘best possible world" of information partners is clearly one that this project is attempting to build some pieces for.

The UIA, because of its database initiatives, has been invited to join the Strategic Alliance for a Sustainable Information Society, launched 30 October 1998 under the aegis of the European Environment Agency. This initiative, with extensive corporate involvement, aspires to establish a consensus on long-term goals and procedures for "working together". The exercise is a timely one. Just how such "consensus-building" can be reconciled with varying value priorities (including "national interest") and the "competitiveness" of the information business, remains to be determined. The process will again contribute valuable insights into attaining shared long-term goals and the partners’/project’s roles in enabling this.

Specifically on the matter of defining long-term goals for a comprehensive system of sustainable development information, we note that prior to the energy crisis in the 1970s, "environment" was treated as quite secondary to "development". This was reflected in the design of institutions and their information systems -- and the classifications through which knowledge was obtained. Both institutions and information systems were then forced painfully into restructuring -- often requiring years to do so . It would be a strategic error to assume that other transversal priorities will not emerge in the near future to redefine and reprioritize "sustainable development". In this sense this project is based on the assumption that "goal re-defining" is part of what a participative information system relevant to policy-makers should permit.

Data provision and sources

Reviewer 1: Clarification is also required concerning the dichotomy which exists between restrictions on the end use of data, arising from the custodian model, and the proposed development of in-country commercial services. How would this work, in practice? Does the custodian model accommodate the sale of data to third parties, or local licensing arrangements? This may not be an issue if the data sets involved are public domain - which seems unlikely - but is further complicated by the "user-partner" relationship which will increasingly be the center-piece of such a relationship (i.e. information flow will be two-way). As in-country data passes to the system would the providers be compensated, or would this offset the costs of service provision? A well-worn criticism of past efforts to improve access to biodiversity conservation data is that "non-profit" agencies have compiled data from developing countries - provided on request in most cases, repackaged this and sold it back (or have been perceived as doing so).

We have found that donors of data generally feel much easier about "giving it away" in an environment where they get something back which they value. This can be information provided by others in the same or related fields; it can be wider dissemination of their organizational information. The interactive "stakeholder-as-partner" model caters for this. Also, as noted above, this project will increase delivery back to NGOs of material which they themselves in large part have provided over several decades.

This said, the reviewer’s statement of this dilemma is a problem for any information provider adding value to public domain materials and concerned to maximize access. Our response is not to coopt or resell others’ data; rather we significantly reformat it, if appropriate, and where not take full advantage of a hyperlinked and interactive environment.

In a Web environment, information can be sourced from any participating server. Some have entrance gateways requiring payment, some not. The challenge is to develop a way of handling categories of users passed through by hyperlinks from one financial regime to another without undue frustration; also to provide the user with alternatives and sufficient information to assist their choice.

It is in this context that the Reviewer's question concerning "in-country commercial services" can be answered. It is not intended to charge for any information in a form currently in the public domain and available for free (putting aside for now that it always costs the user something to access even free information). In the case of the project partners, charges would apply only to provision of requested services that are additional to those already provided for free or required to be freely given by their organizational mandate and collaborative partner arrangements. Charges made by partnering commercial and non-commercial services in India would be determined between themselves and their clients. Such charges would be affected by individual agency arrangements and also by flow-on charges for access and services provided by DAINET and other service providers (these not being mutually exclusive).

In a Web and email environment the need for intermediaries and "local licensing" is reduced since there is no need for acquisition of information by an intermediary -- only transfer from source to end user. The intermediary chain found in conventional marketing processes is much reduced or absent. Ideally, basic information changes hands between the source repository and the user on whatever terms they agree between them. It is at this point that the Reviewer's question concerning accommodating "sale of data to third parties, or local licensing arrangements" becomes relevant. Essentially the art would be to ensure that, in the event of any sale, it should be negotiated between user and data source or the user and a specialist service provider, not with any intermediary.

To clarify the point about exploiting other’s resources (also alluded to in a later point by the same reviewer): None of the infoDev partners would seek compensation for any information or services available freely from other sources and which did not require effort (costs) on their part. The distinction is made between the stockholders and stockbrokers; the stockbroker does not get paid for stocks themselves (that could be freely sold anyway), but for providing a valued facilitation and transfer service as an intermediary between buyer and seller.

The intermediary service in this case is a specialised one of "information broker", "value adder", "knowledge switchpoint", "expert finder" and "meaning creator". Such information services are increasingly valued. They are the core business of clearing house organizations like UIA and WCMC. As previously noted, this is in part because knowledge bases of such organizations are analogous to metadata in that they provide comparable references, formats and relationship links. This does not mean that "sale" and "licensing", or their electronic equivalents, are not there. Just that any transaction is enabled within a framework where participants are responsible for their own information specification and control. One of the intermediary’s arts is in designing the interfaces to enable transactions to be as "automated" and self-designed as possible.

Thus, in the case of the UIA, this means that there is no acquisition of information from Development Alternatives or WCMC or any of myriads of other relevant data providers. There would rather be a open grid of millions of internal and external links (currently in existence and evolving) and a designed "conduit" with the Indian DAINET system to enable flows of information through intelligent filtering mechanisms. These would switch the user to the information they require, also enabling those with email access interrogate the internet. The precise details of such a conduit are part of the development work of the project. We trust this paragraph responds to the Reviewer's question concerning passage of in-country data "to the system".

Reviewer 2: Apart from standard statements simply stating that everybody will be happy to cooperative and provide all their data, nothing is said that makes us believe it will be any different. In fact 1 expect it will be even more problematic for this project to succeed because of its semicommercial odor; data providers will be even more reluctant to cooperate if they feel someone else is profiting.

We believe that a variety of responses to this group of concerns has been already provided.

Developing country partners

Reviewer 3: Strategy and schedule for developing partnership with actors in developing countries : who are they targeting ? (NG0s, universities, ministries ... ) how will they be associated ? (training sessions, participation to the development of the product, strengthening of the local capacities?: giving access to internet, providing them with the required equipment...

This series of questions is covered by earlier and later responses. Specifically, this is a project implementing new forms of content and modes of process and delivery; it is not a project delivering training, infrastructure or equipment. These are roles of other initiatives, although comments on the training issue are given below.

Rather than "targeting" specific groups, notably in India, in the mode of treating them as passive objects, we would first let real stakeholders identify themselves. They would do this through making genuine queries which access our pages – as is already happening with the Web prototype. From here they would be provided with more information about the site and service and encouragement to become more involved. They may also identify themselves by responding to information circulars, delivered by email and in conventional print media. We believe this is a preferred way of connecting with stakeholders of the service and enabling its joint development.

Partnership agreements

Reviewer 1: At three months, the timeframe mentioned for the development of partnership agreements is hopelessly unrealistic

This timeframe was for the finalization of agreements between UIA, DA, the other INFO2000 partners and the World Bank. We believe this is sufficient time.

As remarked above, the project is designed to evoke working partnerships of different kinds throughout its operation. Each partnership agreement will be given the time it requires.