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Sketch of a World Action-Potential Information System

International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change

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Appendix II of: International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change (UAI Study Papers INF/5, 1970)


This is a brief indication of the type of low-cost information system which fulfils many of the requirements not covered by the UN Capacity Study and similar specialized in-house systems. It acts at a higher action potential -- focused as close as possible to the present, restricted to information on active or potentially active bodies, and is more highly integrated. Its value to specialized systems is that it can be used as a comprehensive picture from which specialized details can be filtered off.


The system is based on the assumption that in order to formulate a global or comprehensive strategy requiring or affecting a variety of organizations, it is necessary to:

a) maintain an updated picture of who is doing what, where, and when -- for the present and the future. Since neither problems nor the future are respecters of jurisdictional boundaries or imposed categories, the system must:

b) overcome resistance to communication and loss of coverage caused by:

a. established administrative, jurisdictional, political boundaries;

b. geographical separation;

c. conceptual separation arising from divergent specialized disciplines;

d. different evaluations of effectiveness (often arising from past limitations on information received);

e. class and status separation

f. differences in available resources to collect and process information (which leads to different impressions of the necessity for a greater degree of transparency of the world system).

Since a great deal of funds and intellectual and emotional capital is invested in the current organizational and category structure, the system must:

c) avoid the necessity for organizational change or threat to traditional bonds. This also applies to existing or planned information systems, such as that advocated in the UN Capacity Study which is constrained by the years of effort put into the UN, ILO, FAO, and UNESCO library systems. The system must therefore act as a linking process:

d) into which information may be fed from specialized systems with their own security constraints;

e) from which information may be drawn according to specialized filtering profiles. Since the main problem today is to get public support for, and involvement in, projects falling outside an individuals normal sphere of interest, the system must:

f) be directly useful to the individual within his own sphere of interest, although providing him with the facility to increase his awareness of more distant or inclusive contexts -- to the limits of the world system. Following from this is the need to ensure a minimum operational and set up cost for the system, namely that the system must:

g) be self-maintaining in that it generates resources which are used at a point at which they can be seen to be useful by the fund suppliers. To ensure maximum realization of its potential, it must be possible for the system to:

h) juxtapose information concerning groups with related interests in such a way that each group is made aware of the potential value for activity of contacting the other. The decision to communicate directly being of course entirely dependent on each body. (The function of the system is to bypass the encrustation of social mechanisms which render society and the world system opaque to perception of useful contacts.) Since world problems are of such a nature and complexity, and growing at such a rate, that it is impossible to depend upon the "resolving power" of one body or group of bodies to detect them at a point in time before they are close to becoming critical, the system could:

i) be conceived of, described, and used as a problem detection mechanism, such that in their very diversity and tremendous distribution through function and geographical space, each body is seen to have the potential ability to report back on the area of its concern. Problem information (or negative feedback) therefore enters the communication system much earlier in time than would be possible if, as now, it were necessary to depend upon particular organizations or programmes set up in the past to detect the problems considered significant in the past, and which cannot (by definition) be sufficiently flexible to detect new problems before they have achieved considerable magnitude. Finally, such a system should not be described solely as a device or tool. It could also:

j) be conceived of, and described as a symbol (or physical working model) of what has always tended to be an abstract and relatively meaningless concept, namely "world society" or the "'world community".

The elaboration of such a network linking all organizations within the world system in terms of their actual day-to-day pattern of contacts would decrease the current tendency to treat organizations as relatively isolated entities. The existence of such a model, open for "exploration", could have social, psychological and educational consequences of considerable value to the stability of the world system.


The following system is one of many which could fulfil the above criteria.

1. Suppose that every organization (and even active individuals) was given the facility to register its address, interests, current and planned programmes, etc. into a computer file. The act of registration could be accomplished through the post by filling out a standard form.

2. Clearly this project would prove impractical if the attempt was made to do this at an international central office. The amount of information would be too great, therefore making the processing costly, and the project would run foul of criteria (b).

3. Suppose however that the project was catalyzed (not organized) by the United Nations and other such bodies, and the attempt was made to encourage the creation of city, province or national level computer files around the world. Clearly in some cases only a national or even sub-continental file would be possible. In cities, even local files would be possible. This would reflect the amount of information and the resources available.

4. Now suppose that in addition to indicating regularly changes of address or interests, each body files queries concerning other bodies actually or potentially active in its field, and that the appropriate addresses were furnished in response.

5. By catalyzing the creation of collecting points in this way, grass-roots initiative will ensure that the coverage for collection/query response is adequate for a viable service.

6. But now suppose the computer files of the different collecting points are not kept isolated from one another, but that copies of the (magnetic tape) files are moved from one collecting point to another. Clearly contacts and queries collected at one point are now exposed to contacts and queries from other points. This process can take place between local points (within the same province), sub-national points, national points (within the same continent), or international points.

7. The circulation of information can be made very rapid. A courier file can be circulated between a group of local points in the same province (or city) during the course of a week, month, or longer. Information is copied onto and off each local file. At one point the file interacts with an inter-province courier file moving from province to province within a week, month, or longer. Information is transferred both ways. Similarly the inter-province file -- in effect a national file -- could interact with an international courier file on the same principle.

8. Clearly by this means organizations active in one geographical area can find out about, or be made aware of, bodies with related interests in other geographical areas. A refinement would be to encourage the creation of specialized files by subject or subject groups.

9. If collecting points are created for specialized topics, these may also interact with either inter-speciality courier files or also the intergeographical area files -- depending on the level at which the information was collected.

10. The system is very flexible. Clearly a politically sensitive group of organizations like the UN Agencies could circulate a file around the UN system and then have it interact with the international courier file. Security, subject matter and evaluative filters could govern the interaction.

11. The key feature of the system however is that it does not require more than a bare minimum of overall organization -- and even this could prove unnecessary. Neither the courier file movement between collecting points, nor the content of the file, implies any form of "recognition" (see criteria b).

12. Collecting points are created wherever (in terms of subject, jurisdiction, or geographical level) there is sufficient common interest -- i.e. motivation plus resources. If the problems of Criteria b arise, are recognized, and it is desired to overcome them, all the administrative work may be delegated entirely to some party judged to be impartial and uninvolved -- a commercial computer service bureau, a university, a government agency, a user cooperative, or nonprofit institute. The whole procedure at a given collecting point might be arranged under contract.

13. Hopefully the selection criteria, if any, of each collecting point could be clearly stated to facilitate the design of search strategies. But if information or queries are not accepted at one point, they could be inserted into the system via another.

14. The costs involved at each collecting point are (a) conversion of information and queries to machine readable form, (b) processing and output relevant to immediate user contacts, and (c) transport costs of the magnetic tape courier file to the next collecting point. The funds are expended locally in a manner which can be immediately justified and yet this results in making available current information from very distant points within the world system.

15. These costs can be met by (a) a charge imposed on the user bodies for filing their description and interests plus address, (b) a charge imposed on bodies filing queries and/or receiving output replies, (c) a charge imposed on bodies using the system for bulk mailing, (d) subsidies from directly interested bodies (e.g. local, state or national government agencies, foundations, etc.).

16. Charges (a), (b) and (c) under point 15 could also be met or reduced by use of subsidies. These could be made selective and dependent upon compatibility of the interest profile of the subsidizer and the user query profiles.

17. The financing of the system does not need to be comprehensively organized.

18. The system lends itself to some very interesting financing possibilities in the case of bulk mailing (15c). Clearly the risk here is that a registration on the file will lead to floods of literature to particular addresses or profiles.

19. This nuisance can be minimized with a flexible charge procedure. The addressed body specifies the type of information it wishes to receive. It may be given the option of specifying the "barrier" it wishes to impose against information outside this range. The "height" of this barrier could be governed by the amount of the original filing charge paid to the collecting point.

20. Similarly the querying/mailing body could specify what "height" of barrier it wished to overcome and pay accordingly for this privilege. The extra revenue derived from this could then be treated as "free processing units" and transferred to the "accounts" of the bodies which have been "bothered" by this nuisance information -- this increases their ability to make use of the system.

21. A problem would arise at the interface between different level courier files as to how much information should be transferred up or down. For some applications, it would clearly be an advantage to have the accumulation of all the material from all levels, in all parts of the world system. This could however be arranged very flexibly.

22. The processing cost would of course be limited if only modifications and queries were moved around by the courier files.

23. A system of this type can be studied in advance with the use of simulation techniques in order to eliminate design errors.


1. The most important advantages are implicit in the criteria.

2. No existing bodies have information processing commitments which could not mesh with this type of system. In the next few years a multitude of uni-problem, specialized information systems will be created (see SATCOM Report). Some form of more general decentralized, rapid-response system is required to supply a context and link mechanism between such systems.

3. Similar "profile" systems operate through single processing centers for awareness listings of new published material. Such systems are costly to maintain and costly to use. They cannot cover more than a limited range of subjects. Because of the focus on published material and documents, they are always six months to years out of date.

4. For individual organizations the main advantage is that it only needs to be concerned with getting its programme information into the central file and extracting whatever information is available on other bodies active in the field. It does not have to consider whether it recognizes the organization interested in that information or providing the information extracted.

5. This approach could avoid some inter-departmental jurisdictional problems in large organizations. Since the department filing the information (or registering interest in a particular category of information which may at some stage appear on the file) is not in contact with any particular outside organization for any purpose, no grounds for friction with other departments are involved. Once the information is obtained, normal channels can be used to actually contact the outside body. (The technique is in effect ideal for circulation of internal information across jurisdictional boundaries. Each department is sent via the computer any information filed by a department in another part of the organization, if it fulfills the profile criteria. The only link, which results in the transfer, is the common interest in a subject registered via the computer.) By ensuring that the computer automatically redirects or addresses information on a particular subject to the persons who have registered an interest in that subject within the agency, the effectiveness of retransmission is considerably increased. The fact that profiles can be updated very rapidly makes this type of system an ideal means for an organization to respond rapidly to cross-jurisdictional problems.

6. This approach avoids the communication blockages which arise because a particular organization is assumed to have programmes in a given area only. Some sub-sections of an organization may in fact have programmes which touch on an entirely different sector (e.g. FAO programmes touching on health (WHO) or education (UNESCO), etc.) Rigid classification of FAO would bodies interested in health from becoming associated with FAO programmes in this area. This is particularly important in the case of interdisciplinary environmental problems or broad areas of interest such as development which may cover many specialized programmes.

7. Processing of files may be undertaken using very different types of equipment. If a file is transferred to disk or drum, direct access processing can be used. This would permit consultation via remote terminals in offices scattered through an agency -- a technique which will soon be widespread in the computer-sophisticated countries. A great variety of research can be envisaged.

8. Perhaps the most important advantage is that effective links are encouraged vertically between different levels of the world system, leading to geographical and subject area coordination, reinforced by horizontal links between "opposite" numbers in other countries or disciplines.

9. Due to the increased sensitivity of each organization to other activities in related fields of interest -- whether obtained by active querying, or by being informed through the system -- the coordination problem will be reduced because of increased "self-coordination". It will be less necessary to impose coordination.

10. By getting down to the grass roots of the world system, an information system of this type produces a genuine response to the type of complaint cited by the Capacity Study, namely:

"For development assistance to have a real impact, it must start at the roots; development from the top down, although it may appear as the most expedient way to show progress in the short run, is not only deceiving but uneconomic as well as unrealistic" (I, p. 66)

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