-- / --
Report prepared for the Science Adviser to the Commonwealth Secretary General
in partial fulfillment of a consultancy assignment under Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation
(CFTC/APL/13.3, CFTC/CSC/8, 19 May 1978)
Problems of international cross-sectoral operations
** Annex 1: Problems of international, cross-sectoral operations
Context: the information explosion
Context: automation of information processing
Computer conferencing: what is is (in brief)
** Annex 2: Computer conferencing: what is requires
** Annex 2 :Computer conferencing: what it is not
** Annex 2 :Computer conferencing: varieties
Feasibility within a Commonwealth context
International computer conferencing by NGOs and IGOs
** Annex 3: The PLANET system
** Annex 4A: Assisting invisible colleges by EIES
** Annex 4B: Operational trials of EIES (NSF Program)
** Annex 5A: Computer conferencing costs
** Annex 5B: Cost considerations
** Annex 6: Intermediate communication interfaces
Computer conferencing: operational facilities
** Annex 7: Computer conferencing operational facilities
Computer conferencing: funding and resource management
** Annex 8: Flexible funding and resource management
Organizations, meetings and reports: assumptions re-exa mined
** Annex 9: Organizational assumptions re-examined
Dynamic networking environment: an overview
** Annex 10: Dynamic problem environment
Priority determination in a dynamic environment
** Annex 11: Priority determination method
Communication patterns and priorities
** Annex 12: Communication patterns and priorities
Communication content and type
** Annex 13: Communication content and type
Strategy options in a Commonwealth context: pilot projects
** Annex 14: Strategy options: pilot projects
Nature of pilot project
** Annex 15: Communication and computing costs
** Annex 16: Implications for developing countries
** Annex 17: Interrelating divergent perspectives
**Annex 18: Facilitation of transdisciplinary processes
The purpose of this report is to identify how the technique known as computer conferencing could prove of considerable significance in faciliting the activities of a network of organizations and agencies :
The report also indicates how this question is related to that of facilitating interaction between different departments or offices of a large agency (such as the Commonwealth Secretariat) where such communication may be vital to maintain adequate operational momentur on a variety of issues whose degree of interconnectedness may only emerge after programmes have been initiated through the respective departments .
In identifying such relatively sophisticated computer applications, it is recognized that these may not be appropriate for some bodies in some countries either immediately or in the foreseeable future. Attention is therefore given to "intermediate communication interfaces" as a means of enabling less well-endowed bodies to benefit indirectly from such possibilities (whether because they are located in less developed countries or because their resources do not permit full access, even though they are located in industrialized countries).
In order to assist in obtaining an overview of this question, the following report is relatively brief but refers to annexes in which the arguments are developed in more detail.
The report commences with a review of the problems of interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral operations characteristic of Commonwealth activity in order to clarify the challenge to any innovation in communications in such a setting.
The special problems of such operations, which are characteristic of Commonwealth-wide activity, are discussed in Annex 1 under the following headings.
Problems of geographical distance
Problems of cultural difference
- Physical distance
- Time delays
- Time zones
Development related inequalities
- Shifts in values and priorities
- Behavioural modes and preferences
- Intellectual and administrative, level
Multiplication of interlocking perspectives Personal idiosyncracies Problems of interdisciplinarity
- Administrative difficulties
- Government monitoring
- Customs, tax, exchange and immigration control
- Professional difficulties
Before describing computer conferencing and discussing its relevance to such problems, the following two sections describe the information environment in which Commonwealth activity takes place. Computer conferencing in then described briefly (but in more detail in Annex 2 and Annex 7).
In addition to the problems noted above, it is appropriate to recall briefly some of the salient facts concerning the information environment with which an organization must work and within which an international network of bodies must operate (extracted from the indicated pages of: Georges Anderla. Information in 1985. Paris, OECD, 1973.) :
The information explosion is being met by many efforts to automate information processing. International organizations, such as Commonwealth governmental and nongovernmental bodies are both involved in and affected by such initiatives. Again a few points establish the reality of this trend ( I terms are extracted from the indicated pages of the previously cited report.) :
Several other points can be made to show the nature of the change which is now in process :
|Table 1 Categorization of international information systems and programmes|
|Institutional information systems|
DEVSIS X (I)
ARKISYST * CARIS * (I)
DEVSIS * (II)
ANALYSIS AND SELECT IVE DISSEM INATION
SPINES * DRS
Table extracted from: Data tor Development Newsletter, Oct. 1977. (special issue .Information systems and international organizations). Data and Development, 343, bd Romain Rolland, 13009 Marseille, France.
Computer conferencing is a relatively new, but little known, technique which will radically change the way that people and organizations interact and work together through national and international bodies. It is a technique which can be used to overcome many of the obstacles to international and cross-sectoral communication. This can be done without reinforcing some of the antiquated structural features which tend to be built into new organizations for legal, administrative, political or prestige purposes although these may be respected if appropriate.
It cannot be stressed too strongly that those familiar with this technique consider it to be a breakthrough in person-to-person communication of as much social significance as was the telephone.
It is not the purpose of this report to provide a detailed technical description of computer conferencing (A range of descriptions from different perspectives, plus a bibliography, is given in Transnational Associations, 29, 1977, 10 (special issue).) but rather to create an awareness of the alternative that it constitutes to current inadequate procedures. However this raises a peculiar difficulty. Most of the intuitions about face-to-face or "tele"-communication do not apply to this new and unusual form of communication ( J. Vallee et al. The computer conference ; an altered state of communication ? Futurist, 9, 3, 1975, pp. 116-121.). A totally different kind of communication environment is created for those who make use of this technique. Since it involves a new mode of working, it is difficult to give the full flavour of this difference in a purely verbal summary. A brief description by Murray Turoff is as follows (emphasis added) :
"At its simplest level, computer conferencing is a written form of a conference telephone call. Using a computer terminal, a person can "talk" to a group of people by typing messages and reading, on a display screen or a printout, what the other people are saying. The computer automatically informs the group when someone joins or leaves the discussion. When a person signs off, the computer marks his location in the discussion and picks up at that point when he rejoins the conference. Computer conferencing differs from verbal communication in some very important ways. People engaged in computer conferencing can be both geographically and chronologically dispersed. In computer conferencing, everyone may "talk" or "listen" at the same time. A person can make his contribution to the discussion at his own convenience, rather than having to wait until other speakers have finished. He can work at his own pace taking as much or as little time as he needs to read, contemplate, or reply. He can "leave" the conference at any time, knowing that the computer will store all of the messages that he has missed and show them to him whenever he is ready. Each message is assigned a number and labeled with author, date, and time for easy identification and retrieval. Computer conferencing is a truly self-activating form of communication.
The fact that input can be anonymous leads to more open and uninhibited discussions, particularly in the case of someone who would otherwise be hesitant to disagree with a superior. The results of votes are presented only as distributions and there is no way to determine mho voted which way on any particular issue ; in addition, a conferee can change his vote at any time. During the computer conference, individuals may "whisper" to one another by exchanging private messages which are not part of the permanent record of the conference ; the other conferees are not even aware that these exchanges are taking place. This whispering capability, by making possible timely subgroup negotiations and discussions, can lead to more rapid resolution of important issues. The printout capability provides a permanent record of the proceedings and insures against someone being misquoted. It is possible to retrieve information without going through the entire text ; you might want to see all messages containing key words or the input of a particular person.
Computer conferencing puts unique psychological pressure on a person whose messages tend to be verbose, irrelevant, or filled with bureaucratic jargon he will soon notice that no one is paying any attention to his messages, In a face-to-face conference, people have to give an appearance of listening to the speaker, but there is no way you can force a person to read your messages on his computer terminal. One other important point I should make is that computer conferencing is the most efficient way to handle large group discussions involving 25 or more people and should be considered any time more than five people are discussing a subject. A conference telephone call begins to get difficult with more than five people, and face-to-face meetings encounter problems when more than 15 people are involved". (Murray Turoff. The future of computer conferencing. Transnational Associations, 29, 1977, 10, pp. 404-408.)
In Annex 2, further details about computer conferencing are given under the headings :
The question of feasibility from a technical and economic point of view must be examined from two angles :
For the relatively privileged, the situation is as follows,
Some of the cost elements are expected to decrease. Others can be avoided under certain circumstances (see Annex 5).
It should be stressed that computer conferencing within and between North America and Europe has now been used for several years under a wide variety of conditions. The feasibility of using such systems increases each year. The value of doing so is discussed in later sections.
For the relatively underprivileged, the situation is as follows. Whilst there is little doubt that computer conferencing hardware and software will be available in many locations over the next few years, it is important to face the fact that they will not be available in many developing country locations. Nor, for that matter, will they be available in some desirable locations in industrialized countries. And, even when they are available to a particular institute, the administrative procedures and physical location of a terminal may be such as to reduce the desirable feeling of "hands-on" accessibility to those in the institute.
Compromises can however be made to overcome some of these difficulties. The compromises are quite unsatisfactory to purists and a number of advantages are indeed lost but they do represent a considerable improvement on the current situation.
The necessary compromises are discussed in Annex 6 under the heading of intermediate communication interfaces. This approach, to what will remain an important question of access to computers for any purpose, merits further study. It should certainly ensure whatever improvement in access is possible under any particular set of circumstances.
A surprising number of experiments in the use of computer conferencing have already been made by international organizations. Some of those of which we have been informed are mentioned below :
International Society for Technology Assessment: This organization used the CONFER computer conferencing facilities during the course of its second international congress in Ann Arbor (Michigan. USA) to facilitate interaction between participants physically present at the meeting site. (A full report is given on pages 414-417 of this issue).
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: The 19th General Conference of Unesco was held in Nairobi in October-November 1976 over a period of five weeks. A satellite link to the Unesco Secretariat in Paris permitted officials, delegates, translators, journalists and others to interact with those physically present in Nairobi (A full report is given on pages 423-424 of this issue), it is expected that further experiments of this kind will be undertaken using the FrancoGerman Symphonie satellite (which apparently cannot be exploited commercially because of the terms of the contract under which it was launched in the United States).
Hotline International: This is a program initiated by Glen Leet as President of the Community Development Foundation (New York). Its purpose is to broaden the impact of intergovernmental conferences by permitting more people to play a rote in the decisionmaking process and to heighten understanding of what occurs at such international conferences. The system was first demonstrated in April 1974 during the meeting of the Governing Council using a portable computer terminal linked via telephone line to a computer in the United States into which many North American based groups were also linked. A similar approach was used during the course of the UN World Population Conference in August 1974 and again in Nairobi in April 1975 at another meeting of the Governing Council. In June 1975 at the UN Conference on Women the system was expanded to link groups in 10 US cities as well as in Vancouver and Mexico City. During a 17-day period over 100 North American NGOs were linked to discuss items on the conference agenda. The Hotline system was also used during the UN Habitat Conference in Vancouver in 1976.
European Management Forum ; This Geneva-based NGO used the PLANET system (currently marketed by INFOMEDIA Corporation in California) to interact with economists in New York and California in order to obtain expert opinions on technology transfer to developing countries.
International Union of Geological Sciences : The IUGS Committee on Storage. Automatic Processing and Retrieval of Geological Data was used from August to December 1975 by participants in 9 countries in order to plan two major face-to-face meetings in December at which time the PLANET system (cited in the previous example) continued to be used by participants to maintain contact with their respective national institutes. Main uses of the system then and thereafter were to coordinate organization of meetings and workshops, define and resolve certain technical problems connected with the data to be exchanged at the workshops, arrange further travel between collaborating institutes, and extend the discussion of important documents which could not be adequately explored during the time-limits of a face-to-face meeting.
International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee: In anticipation of full use of computer conferencing, the Chairman of one CCITT working group arranged for a simulation of the work of the committee on the FORUM system of the Institute of the Future (based in California). A debate between national delegations with position papers was conducted on integrated digital networks. There are probably a number of other cases of the use of computers to assist interaction between participants at international meetings or as a substitute for meeting. (There are many examples of the exchange of scientific data between national institutes under the auspices of some international body. This is particularly necessary in the case of meteorological data, seismic data, astronomical phenomena, and other international scientific programs.) Such systems are also used by some multinational corporations to facilitate the action of task forces. Aside from actual use of such techniques, there have been a number of conferences of international bodies concerning the future use of such techniques :
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: In 1975 in Paris a conference on computer telecommunication policy was held.
International Council on Computer Communication : This body holds a periodic conference every two years (1972, 1974 and 1976); many technical papers on computer conferencing are presented.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization: NATO is holding a telecommunications symposium in September 1977 (Some of the points to be discussed are noted on pages 123-456 of this issue).
Society for General Systems Research: In February 1977 in Denver during its annual meeting, a workshop was held on on-line intellectual communities ..
Other international bodies are currently planning to use such techniques. For example the International Political Science Association has a Research Committee on Peace and Conflict. Under the direction of the Chairman, J David Singer, computer conferencing has been used on a trial basis within the University of Michigan community, and also in connection with peace researchers at the Universities of Pittsburgh and Rochester, with excellent results to date. It looks now as if we can not only extend the network of peace researchers and others through out North America within a few months, but also as if we can tie into a Western European network within a year or so. As to Eastern Europe, some informal discussions are already under way. and the problems do not seem insurmountable. For South America, Africa and Asia, however, the more serious. But our hope is to eventually establish a world-wide net that would dramatically enhance not only communications in general, but the kind of rapid and open exchange that could lead to major increase in scientific research on the problems of war. peace, and social conflict . (extract from a letter of July 1977).
A whole range of interdependent facilities in available to those bodies interlinked by a computer conferencing network. These are detailed in Annex 7 under the headings :
Alternative types of interaction: messages and notes
- Exchange of messages
- Storage of notes by a user
- Collective storage of notes by a group of users
Alternative types of interaction:conferencing
- Identification of focal topics
- Votes on items (and flagging)
- Data access, exchange and manipulation
- Report editing and production.
- Consensus forming meetings
- Educational/briefing seminars
- Assemblies (with sub-groups in parallel)
- Flexibility in use of time
- Possibility of anonymity, control and monitoring.
- Translation and language assistance
- Explanation and other assistance
- Resource lists (bibliographies, addresses, etc).
Presenting the above facilities as a list obscures the two most important facilities :
Some of this flexibility is illustrated by Diagram 1 .
This approach therefore facilitates most administrative and communication operations associated with organization activities. It maintains continuity between them, increases the possibility of interlinking related activities whenever appropriate, or of establishing distinct task groups if warranted. It is precisely this disciplined flexibility which decreases the need to rely on some rigid procedures which currently handicap organizational activity.
|Diagram 1: Computer-conferencing: operational facilities|
Complementary Facilities :
Focal topic idenification
Questionnaire dispatch and processing
Data access + manipulation
Report editing and distribution
Voting on items.
Non-cellective use :
Multilateral use :
Conferencing use :
|Assistance Possibilities||Translation Explanation Resource lists.|
Computer conferencing, as shown above, permits and encourages participating bodies to clarify the nature of the issues on which they can work together and the structure most appropriate to the possible collaboration. Administrative distinctions can be made and maintained with great precision for purposes of budgetary control given that the computer is used to analyse the cost of each message for accounting purposes. Separate accounts can be opened for each user and for each collective use (e.g. a specific conference). This accounting procedure is adopted with existing computer conferencing software. This administrative precision opens up interesting possibilities for subsidising conferencing activities, in whole or in part, on the basis of the topic, the user, or combinations of these (see Annex 8.a) Donors and recipients can be "matched" in a far more effective way, leaving the donor in a position to monitor or evaluate use of the funds in a way which has never before been reasonable.
Also of importance is the possibility of making better use of key individuals, whether they be consultants or highly placed officials, namely those whose attention constitutes an important resource for the organization and who are Consequently much in demand. Normally cumbersome procedures must be established to "filter" communications to such individuals. This can be counter-productive for the organization. (This is discussed in Annex 8.B).
The previous sections demonstrate that an information environment can be established which facilitates the many kinds of communication associated with organizational activity. Given this possibility, it is important to beware of projecting into it current conceptions about organizations without questioning whether such assumptions need to obtain in their more restricted sense. There is always the danger that limiting attention to the current meaning of the term may be as mistaken as the classic policy errors of thinking "railways" or "trams" instead of "transportation", "typewriters" instead of "information processing", etc.
Conventionally, "organization", "meetings" and "reports" are considered to be distinct, well-defined features of organizational life. The emerging reality underlying each of these terms indicates that this is no longer the case. In Annex 9, is indicated how the following assumptions only partially hold true..
Organization : as permanent, formally structured, hierarchically ordered, legally registered, with elected or appointed officers, and activities or finances.
Meeting: as of short duration, at a particular location, as an isolated event, involving a physical assembly of people, held on the basis of an agenda, with well-defined roles for speakers and others, with a linear sequence of contributions.
Reports:as text on paper, as produced, and as being valuable.
|Diagram 2: Interrelationship_ between organizations, meetings and reports|
Not only are the three intimately related, as shown by Diagram 2, but the categories blur together as indicated in Annex 9 . An organization may have little existence apart from at its conferences, for example, or a report of a meeting may be held to be more real than the meeting. The rapidity of change reduces the permanence, tangibility and stability of organization. The available information technology increasingly encourages and supports configurations of organizational events whose occurrence would otherwise not be possible or significant. Computer conferencing both supports such activity and gives precision to it so that a record is kept of interactions for (only) as long as is necessary, and so that particular configurations of interactions are kept distinct for (only as long as is necessary. But, in addition, not only does it facilitate conventional activity by existing organizations, it also makes possible organized activity which blurs the categories even further.
As the term computer-conferencing indicates, it enables a new kind of meeting-type interaction to take place. The report of such a conference can be edited and printed directly from the computerized files ( See for example: S.Morris and C.Morgan. Human responses to sulphur pollutants ; proceedings of a computer-based conference. Brookhaven National Laboratory, 1974.). But, because of the way the "meeting" participants are ordered within the computer files, there is little distinction between a meeting and an organization. In effet, therefore, computer conferencing makes possible the emergence of a whole new category of computer-based organizations . Members, accounts, communications, memofiles, executive meetings, seminars, report preparation and production, etc. can all be conducted through the computer. The rules governing the organization can be recorded and amended through the computer, but it should be remembered that the user "protocol rules" chosen for a particular group interaction effectively define with great precision much of what is normally defined in the statutes of an organization.
A great advantage is that participants can be members of many such organizations (committees, task forces, groups, etc) simultaneously, switching attention from one to another as required. Such bodies can be maintained in existence for hours, months or years according to need.
In order better to comprehend the kind of working environment which will very shortly offer an economically viable alternative to current operations, it is important to get an overview of what occurs. For it is no longer a case of an isolated organization working peacefully on a well-contained problem on this point it is useful to note the description of the dynamic interactive environment (see Annex 10)
The description of computer conferencing indicates the nature of an environment which encourages "networking". This process seemingly involves individuals and bodies who tend to exchange information and ideas, who form groups, who are (individually or via such groups) linked to other groups or institutions. Such bodies themselves exchange information, funds, etc. The topics or concepts about which information is exchanged are themselves interlinked in complex networks.
None of these interwoven networks is static. They grow in terms of a variety of established patterns. Conceptual networks are paralleled by interpersonal and intergroup networks. The established patterns are continually replaced by new forms of varying duration. Such changes may be catalyzed by events such as meetings (perhaps via computer) which provide focal points through which new links are momentarily made and then possibly given permanence through the establishment of working relationships or even of formal organizations (whether of concepts or of social groupings.)
Clearly new concepts (or concept relationships), values or problems give rise to new meetings, new projects, new organizations, new information systems and new regulations. These is turn catalyze the emergence of further concepts, values or perceived problems. There are many shifts and waves in the changing pattern of relationships many are short-lived and do not provide a basis for organization of any permanence. "Sympathetic" changes may occur in the network, out of phase with one another, and provoke "degeneration" to a more "primitive" level of organization.
The structure of any of these networks is not only a matter of detached observation. Much energy in devoted by individuals and organizations associated with these networks to re-ordering them. Domains of influence and hierarchies are'established around focal points ; specific problems, values and concepts are given territorial characteristics and stimulate appropriate behaviour.
Clearly participants must adopt strategies to further projects corresponding to their viewpoints and values. Such projects give rise to a degree of coordination encompassing certain domains although the networking process providescontinuity over time and a context to "nest" or link various levels or stages of coordination (centralization) and autonomy (decentralization). The possible complexity is great, and mere it not for the ability to facilitate, track and display this process by computer, its dynamism and flexibility could not be incorporated in an option which would be viable operationally or administratively.
The degree of network dynamism evident from the description in the previous section, and in the daily workings of the inter-organizational world, poses a serious question of priority determination. A set of priorities necessarily imposes a unique static structure on a network which is in constant evolution in response to new problems, new insights, and new initiatives (in the continuing competition for scarce resources). Clearly there is little possibility for reconciling the static and the dynamic as things now stand. Priorities are set as a temporary convenience amongst a limited number of organizational units prepared to accept the "alignment". Discontinuities necessarily result whenever the alignment breaks up in favour of another inter-organizational configuration and another set of priorities. Such discontinuities are very serious since the re-determination of priorities can be a very time-consuming process so time-consuming that, once set, there is much reluctance to re-activate the process to take account of new factors.
It is appropriate to note here how computer conferencing can :
(a) assist the priority determination process ; (b) facilitate the resulting organizational activity ; (c) facilitate the re-activation of the priority determination process, whenever appropriate ; (d) maintain continuity through any switch in organizational actively in response to new priorities or to other related sets of priorities.
A method for priority determination in science and technology in relation to development objectives, recently published by Unesco (Method for priority determination in science and technology. Paris, Unesco, 1978 (Science Policy series, 40).), provides an appropriate example. The method is described briefly in Annex II. Essentially it involves setting up two sets of panels, one to cover all the fields of science and technology, the other to cover all development programme areas. Each panel is broken down into sub-panels of experts on specific topics. Panelists must first be trained/briefed, then they work through sub-panels, and by confrontation of conflicting results, to identify and order priorities, assisted by a number of statistical techniques.
All stages of the operation could be handled advantageously within a computer conferencing environment. But, in addition, because of its very nature, such an exercise could be conducted rapidly on a regular basis within a network of organizations or departments (represented on the panels) to check the validity of any established set of priorities governing resource allocation. Contact can be beneficially maintained with any other configuration of organizations which favours an alternative set of priorities.
The communications between different types of body of direct or indirect importance to the Commonwealth are classified in Annex 12 and summarized there in Table 2 under the headings :
A Commonwealth intergovernmental communications B Commonwealth international nongovernmental communications C Communications with (and between) national Commonwealth bodies D Communications with (but not between) non-Commonwealth international bodies E Communications with (but not between) non-Commonwealth national bodies F Communications between non-Commonwealth international bodies G Communications between non-Commonwealth national bodies H Communications with individual experts/consultants.
Clearly category A is of major importance and its improvement may be considered sufficient challenge at this time. However, to the extent that the support of a Commonwealth attitude and understanding is also dependent on the communications with, and between, other types of body, then categories B and C must also be considered. The effectiveness of Commonwealth-oriented communications is also dependent on their strength in relation to non-Commonwealth bodies with which Commonwealth bodies may collaborate in other (regional) contexts, in which case categories D and E must be considered. Finally, there is a limit to the advantage in improving Commonwealthoriented communications, if communications between non-Commonwealth bodies do not also keep pace, in which case categories F and G should also be considered. It should not be forgotten that many of the bodies may be, or become, participants in non-Commonwealth communication systems.
Communication priorities may be determined in terms of categories such as those above. Priorities may however be affected by, or completely determined by, programme area considerations. This brings in questions discussed in the previous section. Ideally, a part from a basic pattern of communication, the direction and intensity of communication flows should bear a strong relationship to the outcome of the kind of priority determination exercise described in Annex II. This establishes :
Now both the programme concerns and the fields of expertise tend to be preoccupations of organizations and agencies, possibly of different kinds. Consequently such an exercise should give a strong indication of the need (or lack of need) for communication between bodies with specific preoccupations. As noted in Annex II, the method distinguishes between links which are: critically important, important, of interest and irrelevant. The amount or quality of communication between the bodies so linked could usefully reflect any such evaluation.
The previous section has clarified the relationship between patterns of communication and the priorities on which they are based. Before considering the feasibility of any particular computer conferencing application, the nature of the information which might be exchanged between the bodies identified in the previous section must first be examined further. This has been covered to some extent in Annex 7 in which the different types of interaction were identified, particularly under the headings :
By concentrating on the types of message involved in such interactions, a clearer appreciation of the possibilities for their facilitation emerges. In Annex 13, these are considered under the following headings :
In fact, at the computer level, there is much interlinkage between the message files which is only apparent to the user in terms of the flexibility with which different related items of information can be brought to his attention. The files for a particular computer-based conference, committee, newsletter or "bulletin board" will, for example, be handled in the same way since from a computer viewpoint they are identical.
The possibility of installing and linking computer terminals in 500 key Commonwealth locations will not be considered here. The value of moving towards any such degree of integration must first be demonstrated and it may well prove to be the case that computer conferencing is not appropriate to Commonwealth communications or that it is only appropriate in limited contexts. The pilot projects identified in Annex 14 therefore represent different approaches to testing the value of the technique. The options discussed are :
Option 1 Commonwealth Secretariat and associated bodies Option 2 Commonwealth Secretariat and London-based bodies Option 3 Commonwealth Secretariat, and Member States Option 4 Commonwealth NGO secretariats in London Option 5 Commonwealth NGO secretariats world-wide Option 6 Commonwealth national government agencies Option 7 Commonwealth national nongovernmental bodies Option 8 Non-Commonwealth international agencies Option 9 Programme oriented Option 10: Expert/consultant oriented Option 11: Focal centres in Member States.
As discussed in Annex 14, many of these options are of considerably less interest if taken in isolation. (As with the telephone, there is less point in having one if half the people one wants to speak to do not). The question then/becomes where to start and how to select between them. Some considerations are :
It seems fairly clear, in the light of similar data processing exercises, that such a system is feasible at least from the point of view of software and hardware. The more important issue is whether it is worth doing at this time, and whether doing it would not create more problems for the initial users than they would care to handle. This raises the question as to whether a pilot project could clarify whether the project was feasible for given the limited scope of any such experiment it might operate below the critical number of users necessary to make it viable, both economically and in terms of information flow(An hotel reservation system cannot be satisfactorily proven with three users). The other danger is that such a pilot project might be too simple inconception, so that although the participants could engage in some "message swopping", the significance of the participation of other categories of users, and the facilities that they require, would not be recognized. It is too easy to meet immediate priorities, ignoring future requirements, and thus building obsolescence and irrelevance into the system.
From the above it can be concluded that it is not necessary to prove the technical feasibility. The administrative/accounting/ working/control relationships can perhaps be best sorted out in discussion. Insights emerging from such discussions should be reflected in a detailed specification of the software required if not already available.
Some of the problems can be brought out in simulations of the operation of such a system as a special exercise on an existing computer conferencing system since such software already has most of the features required, including the possibility of relatively sophisticated messaging, editing, retrieval, questionnaire dissemination, etc.
Perhaps the key question is how such a project would affect the operations and finances of the initial users. Clearly experimenting with such a system, in parallel with existing operations, with each message appearing to cost more than normal, could be very discouraging. On the other hand some of the potential initial users are already using, or are about to use, in-house computer equipment. The question is then whether the pilot project could have "failsafe" elements built into it. In other words, even if they decided (after the experiment) not to continue in a conferencing mode, such bodies would still derive advantage from experience with the software.
Some cost considerations
Although precise cost figures can be obtained, these depend very much/on the system used, availability of time on a host computer at non-commercial rates, and other such factors. A summary of some cost elements is given (as Annex 5 ) for the USA.
These include (per user) :
An additional charge may be made for rental of the computer conferencing software, (e.g. $ 5.00 per hour).
In an analysis of computer conferencing among geoscientists, in 576 hours of operation, involving 5,459 messages, communicated in a total of 4,596 sessions (at a terminal), the total cost was $ 9,474 namely $ 1,74 per message or $ 16.45 per hour. These costs exclude terminal rental, telephone charges, and storage costs. Indeed depending on how the system is organized different cost elements may be present or absent (see Annex 5). Another source (see Annex 5) gives the cost of operating a USA-wide system at: $ 8.00 per hour per person with 300 participants $ 5.00 per hour per person with 1000 participants.
As stated in Annex 6, it is not however necessary for the system to be operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Although a message swopping system could me 11 be cheaper (e.g. using a telex link), it is not clear that this would be significantly better than the postal service or of any special advantage to the potential initial users. Conferencing facilities offer the user much more however.
A new communication environment is being created by a combination of developments in both telecommunications via satellites and in computer hardware. This is accompanied by a considerable reduction in the associated costs (see Annex 15). Because of the explosive development in these two domains and their respective prior commitments, relatively little attention has been given to the possibilities which emerge from their combination (Computers and Telecommunications. Paris, OECD, 1973, p.29). Nevertheless it is recognized that (Lewis M Bramscomb. Trends and developments in computer/telecommunications technologies. In: Conference on Computer/ Telecommunications Policy. Paris, OECD, 1976, p.62-63.) :
1. The cost of communicating is becoming relatively more important than computing in teleprocessing ; 2. an economic justification can be made for using more computing hardware if it will raise the productivity of people, even if a substantial increase in communications cost results as well. The key to raising productivity while maintaining the flexibility to grow and change with user's needs rests in the software systems that permeate and give personality to the communications and computing features of the system
Software has been developed and is in commercial use to provide an international computer conferencing environment (Annex 3). Whilst the first such system was developed for the US Office for Emergency Preparedness, later systems have been used by corporations, scientists and students. In 1976, the US National Sciences Foundation initiated a programme to facilitate compter-mediated communication amongst a number of small groups of 10 to 50 geographically dispersed individuals of mixed institutional affiliation, but sharing a preoccupation with a scientific or technological problem, especially one related to urgent national problems (see Annex 4).
Despite the availability of computers and telecommunication links in the Commonwealth countries, no effort has yet been made to explore the relevance of the unusual facilities offered by computer conferencing to the enhancement of working relations between bodies in those countries. The crucial questionis, if the Commonwea1th is based on a tenous pattern of interlinkages betweenbodies in the Member States, then is it desirably to aim for a "quantum leap" in the level, integration and dynamismofsuch working relations over the next 5 to 10 years ? Or is the current pattern and intensity of communication considered satisfactory and requiring only minima 1 improvement ?
Whatever the answer, an environment is being created which will require a complete reassessment of the Justification for continuing to depend upon paper-supported inter-office communications and faceto-face meetings. It is appropriate that the implications of this revolution should be constantly reviewed within a Commonwealth context. It is quite possible that the Commonwealth countries could take the initiative in the international community in adapting themselves to this opportunity. There is definitely a need for Commonwealth-oriented expertise in this area, since at this time the expertise is concentrated in the USA (or subject to the traditional split between the computer and the telecommunication communities).
On the vital issue of the relevance of computer conferencing to the developing and less developed countries, a number of points are discussed in Annex 16. It would appear that computer conferencing offers some very interesting possibilities for developing countries which an not subject to many of the usual criticisms of sophisticated technology in that context. However, where the use of computer terminals in not feasible, the possibility of "intermediate communication interfaces" (Annex 6) itself merits further investigation as a way of ensuring that bodies, in developing or industria1ised countries, are not handicapped by lack of access to the energing communication environment (and the associated "knowledge industries " ).
A special advantage of computer conferencing is its ability to interrelate divergent perspectives and operational preoccupations, such as with the: policy mode, project management mode, research mode, education mode, public information (media-oriented) mode, documentation mode, institutional mode, funding mode and administration mode (see Annex 17). A related advantage is the ability to facilitate transdisciplinary processes which are vital to any dynamic response to a complex evolving problem environment (see Annex 18).
Possibilities for further action are discussed in the next, and final, section. In concluding, however, it is important to stress that computer conferencing should only be considered if there is both the will and the desire to improve communications and operatiorial momentum, as well as a recognized need to do so which justifies that improvement. In announcing its own programme, for example, the US National Science Foundation makes the point that :
"To participate effectively in a trial project, the members of the research community must recognize the importance of communication as a factor in their effectiveness and share a willingness to try the electronic alternative to the methods of interaction upon which they are accustomed to rely".
The next steps that could be taken include :
1. A survey of potential participants, both in terms of immediate interest as well as expected interest in 3 to 5 years time. Such a survey should also determine the nature of any data processing such participants are under taking or need to undertake and the kind of equipment or service they use or expect to use. It may be that some of the Free-standing in-house smaller computers could be linked into a data network (if appropriate modems could be provided).
2. An inquiry to determine the availability of host computers within which the conferencing files could be held and via which the terminals could be linked through the telephone network. It is quite possible that free or low-cost time could be obtained on computers belonging to government agencies of one or more Member States.
3. A survey of the relevance to a Commonwealth conferencing system of the increasing number of data networks (e.g. EURONET, TELENET, etc), especially in terms of access to developing countries and between them. Problems of telephone line quality and access via satellite ground stations should also be considered.
4. Establish contact with the two focal points for operational computer conferencing at this time, namely :
Informedia Corporation (USA) with regard to the PLANET system, now being used commercially from Europe. Access Improvement Program of the National Science Foundation (USA) with regard to the EIES system developed at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
These should be able to clarify some of the problems likely to arise in undertaking a trial and to provide indicative results from the trials they have conducted (Jacques Vallee et al. Computer Conferencing in the Geosciences.).
5. Investigation of the value of a preliminary demonstration/trial using PLANET and a number of rented terminals in London.
6. Investigation of the possibility of obtaining, adapting or specially designing conferencing software suitable to a Commonwealthoriented application.
7. Preparation of video tape presentations of computer conferencing (which are available) to convey an understanding of what can be achieved in that environment. (Presentations of American origin might well be adapted, with a different sound track, to/take account of the Commonwealth orientation).
8. Investigation of the possible "intermediate communication interfaces" (discussed in Annex 6) to bridge the gap to bodies unable to obtain direct access to computer terminals.
9. Report on how one or more divisions of the Commonwealth Secretariat could work in a computer conferencing environment (e.g. the implications for the Commonwealth Science Council).
10. Report on the sensitivity of the operational momentum of Commonwealth projects to time delays both under normal conditions and in time of emergencies to which a Commonwealth response is required, (in other words, is momentum satisfactorily maintained with the delays imposed by the postal or other services currently used, or could the momentum be desirably increased if these delays were significantly reduced). This should also identify the critical number of participants below which an improved system mould result in marginal benefit to their own activities or to Commonwealth communications as a whole.
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