As the new internet technologies have developed, IISD Reporting Services has been far out in front of the curve, pioneering new and innovative ways to communicate. It’s easy to forget that when we first began publishing the Earth Negotiations Bulletin
in 1992, there were no websites, no digital photos, no social networking sites and very few people had email. Most organizations were structured around limited flows of information and there was a strong link between access to knowledge and power. As the internet grew, so did we, helping to change the way that knowledge and information on environment and sustainable development is communicated.
During the initial years of publishing Earth Negotiations Bulletin, we posted our reports on the early NGO networks, like Econet, Greennet, Pegasus and the Web. These early UNIX-based systems would synchronize their databases using dial-up lines between San Francisco, London, Sydney and Toronto, allowing the NGO community to share emails and discussions on a global basis. Our early reports were part of a movement to promote transparency in international decision-making and gave citizens around the world their first look at what their governments were saying in international fora.
Now, with web sites, emails, social networking, twitter feeds and instant messaging, information is ubiquitous. In many organizations, the entry-level clerk with a desktop in the office may have better intelligence than the Chief Executive Officer. Information is still powerful, but it has been effectively distributed throughout the office. The problems now are not access to information. The real challenge today is in filtering the flows of data that overwhelm us each day.
IISD Reporting Services provides an important new and emerging role in the information marketplace. The “Knowledge Broker” is the trusted intermediary who sifts through large amounts of data, synthesizing this mass of information into neutral, authoritative bits that can be used by decision-makers. This transformation of data into knowledge requires the intelligent organization of material in a way that it can be communicated and retrieved, based on where it fits in the larger political context or policy milieu in which it exists.
In 1994, IISD Reporting Services went online with our website www.iisd.ca. This was back in the early, early days of the World Wide Web, when the launch of a new website was announced on an email list of web pioneers, who eagerly explored each website when it came online. In fact, it was such a new medium that we thought that a website should have a name, like a book. So, we called our website “Linkages” since it provided a place where we could actually begin to link our publication, the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, and online data (mostly FTP sites back in those days) by the use of hyperlinks. We also thought that we could show, through this site, how issues such as forest policy and climate change might be linked.
In the following years, we pioneered the use of many new technologies. We were the first to use Adobe’s new Portable Document Format (PDF) for distribution of our reports in fully-formatted version (1995), digital photos (1996) and streaming audio from meetings (1996). We even tested a new system for streaming video from the Kyoto Protocol negotiations in 1997.
Although we have always been involved in a form of Knowledge Management, we began to offer these services formally in 2006 when we launched the MEA Bulletin. In cooperation with UNEP, we established an internal system of “Issue Cluster Experts” (who we now refer to as “Thematic Experts”) to gather information from the MEA Secretariats on a weekly basis. These eight ENB team members would visit websites, exchange emails and speak with Secretariat members, pulling together information on the activities of the Secretariats. This information would then be organized, categorized and uploaded to our Linkages website and then published in our fortnightly newsletter. The archives of the MEA Bulletin can be found at http://www.iisd.ca/email/mea-l/
Most recently, we have offered our Knowledge Management services to assist the UN in tracking international activities on climate change, in cooperation with the Chief Executives Board (CEB) Secretariat. Following on the UN Secretary-General’s request that program activities on climate change should be coordinated across the UN system by the CEB and its subsidiary body, the High Level Committee on Programs (HLCP), IISD began building a knowledgebase that organizes international activities related to climate change by asking the question, “What ACTOR did which ACTION in which ISSUE AREA and to which BUILDING BLOCK does it refer?” Our database was launched in May 2008 and currently describes 1300 separate activities in the knowledgebase. After seed funding from the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, this project is now wholly supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC.) The CLIMATE-L knowledgebase is publically accessible and can be found at http://climate-l.iisd.org
As the mass of information on environment and sustainable development policy expands and the demands by policy-makers for more and more knowledge services increase, we expect that this will be an area of growth for us in the coming years. We are currently in discussions with UNIDO regarding possible assistance to UN-ENERGY and with FAO in their role as Secretariat for UN-WATER, tracking international activities on renewable and sustainable energy and water, respectively. The key to good knowledge management is the establishment of excellent tracking systems using individuals who understand the political and scientific context in which they are working and who can both synthesize the information they gather and also categorize it for later retrieval in a content management system. Most importantly, knowledge cannot be just available; it must also be accessible and the community of intended beneficiaries made aware of its existence by building epistemic communities (email lists, web sites and social networks) and pushing the knowledge out so that it can be used in policy-making.
In all of these areas, IISD Reporting Services has distinguished itself as a leader in this field, vertically integrating our services through all levels. We have the writers and access at international meetings to collect information. We synthesize it so that it can be used by decision-makers. Then we disseminate it through our extensive lists reaching more than 75,000 email addresses and through our website accessed by tens of millions of readers each year.
And all of this is done from a one-room office in Manhattan. Next issue, I’ll discuss the management of knowledge workers in a virtual organization, resulting in low overhead costs and the ability to scale-up and scale down on a daily and weekly basis.