Sunday, March 06, 2005

UNESCO and Informatics

By Sidney Passman, who served as UNESCO’s Director of the Division of Scientific Research and Higher Education in 1973-81. (This article appeared in Americans for UNESCO’s publication: Prospects & Retrospects, Vol. 2 No. 2 (p. 28-29), Winter 2004-2005)

In the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the International Telecommunications Union meeting in Geneva in December 2003, UNESCO played a central role. The meeting was part of the global interest in using information and communications technology (ICT) for the improvement of humankind. Such issues as the digital divide, access to scientific information, freedom of information, preservation of digital archives, government policies for information and information processing, information and development—these are among those now on the front burner of the UN and its specialized agencies as well as the World Bank.

These groups are not the first to recognize the importance of these issues. A modest historical review may remind readers that UNESCO was in fact present at the creation when it comes to the computerization of information and its applications.

In 1950 or thereabouts, informed people believed the world might need only a handful of the then-gigantic computers. A UN committee was set up to think about research institutes of the future. It was chaired by UNESCO’s first ADG for Science, Joseph Needham, who recommended an International Computation Center (ICC) for the UN. UNESCO helped found the ICC as an intergovernmental organization; it later mutated into the Intergovernmental Bureau for Informatics (IBI), headquartered in Rome.

It was deemed essential to nurture the NGO community in mastering this technical area. To this end, UNESCO sponsored the Paris World Conference on Information Processing in 1959; it led in turn to the formation of the International Federation for Information Processing , still the principal world society for data processing. It goes without saying that US professionals played a key role in this effort.

By the time I joined UNESCO in 1973, computers had found their niche. They were already being used for manifold applications in the industrialized world, but there was a growing need to consider coherent policies for their successful adaptation in development. During this process, the term “informatics” was coined, from the French informatique, so as to cover these manifold issues.

John E. Fobes, then UNESCO’s DDG, immediately saw the implications. As a master of the UN’s organizational system, he was a superb guide. With his help, I was able to work with the UN Development Program, the IBI and the UN Office of Science and Technology in organizing a UN-wide computer program for development. We were concerned that government policies support these efforts and thus we called for national and international informatics policies; with IBI we organized the First World Conference on Strategies and Policies for Informatics, acronym SPIN-1978 in Torremolinos, Spain. As Secretary General for SPIN-1978, I have come to see over time that this effort, including the now-standard regional preparatory meetings, played an important role in adapting computer developments in science, education, communications and commerce to the needs of dozens of countries. I confirmed this later, as a consultant for USIA in India and for AID in Tunisia on a project designed to assist in computerization and institutional development. India is now a leader in the field and Tunisia has made significant progress and will host the second round of the WSIS in 2005.

In addition to working with IFIP, UNESCO helped organize a group of related NGOs with the acronym FIACC (Five International Associations Coordinating Committee) to help coordinate meetings and programs in the greatly expanding professional community. As part of this effort, it was recognized that the private sector played an essential role in computerization. My contacts with IBM, the giant in the field, led to that corporation’s agreeing to assist UNESCO in training personnel, supplying computers to scientific and educational centers, and making their own worldwide application centers available to facilitate the way to development applications. The memo of understanding between the two organizations was, I believe, a pioneering step in such partnerships--today there are many more, including the latest with Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. There are also extra-budgetary programs with national and UN sponsors which supplement the very limited funds available under UNESCO’s regular program. Over the years these have enabled UNESCO to be of assistance in generating capacity for world-wide efforts in informatics development.

UNESCO later established the Intergovernmental Informatics Program (IIP) to support developments as a supplement to its regular program; IBI, having run out of momentum, was dissolved in the late `80s

It should be noted that during this time, parallel developments were being carried out at UNESCO in the fields of scientific information and library information, in close cooperation with the professional community, notably the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) [now known as the International Council for Science] and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), culminating in the world conference , UNISIST, leading to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Program on Information. It eventually became clear that these subjects were also heavily involved with computerization and ultimately both Intergovernmental programs were merged into the present IFAP—theIntergovernmental Program for Information for All. This program provides a focus for international policy discussions and guidelines for action on:
* Preservation of information and universal access to it;
* Participation of all in the emerging global information society;
* Ethical, legal and societal consequences of ICT developments.

For the WSIS, UNESCO organized various important symposia, including one for the scientific community, convened with the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), the Geneva-based high-energy physics center which also was the initiator of the World Wide Web (CERN was materially aided in its birth by UNESCO--a story in itself). For WSIS, UNESCO's documentation, seminars, consultants and DG Matsuura’s personal dedication succeeded in bringing that conference into the mainstream of support for the knowledge society and the free flow of information.

In all, admirers of UNESCO’s work may take pride in its half century of accomplishment in informatics, an area in which US participation, from the outset, played a crucial role.

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