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Applying Information and Communication Technology for Sustainability

Commission on Sustainable Development
First Session, June 14-25, 1993
Items 4(a) and 6 of the provisional agenda

Applying Information and Communication Technology for Sustainability: Organizing Information Provided to the Commission, and Transfer of Information and Communication Technology

(Intervention of the International Synergy Institute)


Effective application of information and communication technology can play a critical and indispensable role in organizing information that is provided to the Commission on Sustainable Development. The compilation and dissemination in electronic format of all documents prepared by, and submitted to, the Secretariat offers substantial benefits; not the least of these benefits is ease of access to, and integration of, information. In order for these benefits to be available equitably to all member States, as well as to non-governmental organizations from all regions, there is a need to strengthen the transfer of information and communication technology, and for capacity-building of member States and NGOs in the use of information and communication technology.

I. Background

1. The preparatory process for UNCED broke new ground in the extent to which official documents were made available in electronic format; electronic access to the UNCED documents -- and now to those of the Commission on Sustainable Development -- provide substantial benefits for those who were able to obtain them in that format. The benefits include timeliness of access, ease of reproduction and dissemination and of retrieval, management and transport of information.

2. The systematic management of information within the UN system relating to sustainable development -- through intelligent application of information technology -- can play a valuable role in supporting the integration of the large amount of information relating to sustainability and in allowing for identification and analysis based on the interrelatedness of much of the information pertaining to sustainability.

3. Information and communication technology are at the leading edge of technological innovation. Effective use and development of these technologies are vital to creation and strengthening the infrastructure, and the skills, by which both developed and developing countries can respond to the requirements of sustainability.

4. Significant advances in the technologies -- for example in increased power and storage capacity, and decreased size and costs -- were clearly visible during the short period of preparations for UNCED, and technological development in the area shows no signs of slowing.

5. Virtually all documents submitted to the Commission -- whether from governments, United Nations agencies, other intergovernmental organizations or non-governmental organizations -- have been prepared in electronic format. However, while the Commission has been informally requesting that documents also be submitted electronically, as of yet, there are no systematic mechanisms or procedures, nor specific resources allocated either for this process, or for the dissemination of documents in electronic format.

6. The Commission, and some governments and non-governmental organizations, are using document scanners in conjunction with optical character recognition software to convert printed documents into electronic format. The effective use of document scanning offers valuable benefits and its use should be encouraged; however, it is far more time consuming than direct copying of word processing files or document access via electronic networks.

7. Both in relation to the use of optical character recognition software, and to the dissemination of documents on electronic networks, the prevailing standard used is the American Standard Character Information Interchange (ASCII). However, the ASCII standard does not support accented Roman characters, nor can it handle character sets -- e.g. Russian, Arabic and Chinese -- that are not based on the Roman alphabet.

II. Recommendations

8. Governments, intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations should be formally requested to provide copies in electronic format -- to the extent possible -- of all documents submitted to the Commission in addition to printed copies.

9. The Commission should establish a Working Party -- or some other appropriate body -- that would meet with relevant experts and resource people from Governments, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and specialists in organizing information in electronic format and prepare recommendations for the Commission as well as for the Inter Agency Committee on Sustainable Development of the Administrative Coordinating Committee.

10. The recommendations of such a Working Party should address: the immediate and short term needs of the Commission; overall structural changes in the ways that information is organized within the UN system -- in conjunction with the UN Advisory Committee for the Coordination of Information Systems (ACCIS) and other appropriate bodies -- particularly as those changes relate to information for sustainable development; and cooperation with local, national and international initiatives of non-governmental organizations, especially in developing countries.

11. The Commission should encourage Governments with resources and expertise in the application of information technology, and who use those resources and expertise to organize documents and information relating to the work of the Commission to share their expertise with other Governments and with the Commission, and to provide support for capacity-building in the use of information technology for other Governments and non-governmental organizations.

12. The recommendations of the Working Party should pay particular attention to the information and communication needs, particularly those relating to sustainability, of developing countries. This should include exploration of how resources such as:

  • the Internet electronic network;

  • technical assistance and skills development; and

  • strengthening electronic communications infrastructure

can be made more effectively available to Governments and non-governmental organizations from developing countries.

13. Attention should also be paid to the development and adoption of international standards for computer-based character sets that support communication in all languages, particularly in all the official UN languages.

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