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Computer Communications
& the
1992 United Nations Conference on
Environment and Development

Alternative Technology for Communication & Participation by
Non-government Organizations

A Concise Guide

Prepared by:

Langston James Goree VI, IPHAE, Porto Velho, Rondonia, Brazil (ax:kimo)
Robert Pollard, Information Habitat, Baltimore, Maryland, USA (cdp:rpollard)

Funding for the preparation of this guide has been provided by a grant to the Canadian Council for International Cooperation by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

August, 1990


In the coming twenty-two months there will be a flurry of activity in preparation for the UNCED to be held in Brazil during June of 1992. Many of these preparations will necessitate the exchange of documents, letters, faxes and phone calls between groups scattered throughout the planet, creating a massive communications problem. In order to facilitate the rapid exchange of information and reduce costs a large number of NGOs have begun using an alternate form of technology; computer networking.

This guide has been prepared for distribution at the Preparatory Committee Meetings scheduled for August 6-31 1990 in Nairobi, Kenya for the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development. It is intended as an orientation for participants in the uses of computer networking as a communications tool. Please feel free to copy this guide, and share it with friends and colleagues in your country and region.

A Little Bit of History

The world has become a much smaller place with the advent of modern telecommunications. Recent advances in computer mediated data transmission have made it possible for individuals in various places in the world to carry on multi-party conferences and exchange information quickly and at very low cost.

Both the Secretary General of the UNCED and NGOs internationally have recognized the possible uses of computer networks to facilitate the exchange of information around the 1992 Conference. The Canadian Council for International Development with assistance from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has begun efforts to stimulate these activities. Of particular interest to CIDA, and to agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme, is the potential for strengthened dialogue, coordination and sharing of information, knowledge and skills between non-government organizations in developing nations and their counterparts in industrialized countries.

What is computer networking?

Computer networking is simply the exchange of information -- correspondence, policy papers, ideas and strategies, or quantitative data -- from one computer to another. These computers can be as close as across the room or as far apart as across the planet. Computers can be hooked together by telephone lines, satellite links, radio waves or infrared beams. In the case of NGO networking, most users connect their home or office personal computers by telephone to central computers (called "host" computers) where they receive and send information.

How do NGOs network?

Several non-profit independent NGO networks sprouted up throughout the world during the last decade. Only in the last three years have these independent networks formed together for the exchange of mail and shared electronic conferences. The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) was formed in 1988 to coordinate this world-wide NGO effort. The networks that make up the members of APC, and the areas they serve, are:

Latin America
The Web
United Kingdom, Europe & Africa
Central America
Australia, New Zealand, Asia & the South Pacific

Each network is actually a powerful host computer that acts as a central storage facility for information. The individual users connect their personal computers to the host where they can pick up and deliver their electronic mail (e-mail) as well as read entries in public conferences.

What do the APC networks offer?

The APC networks provide a reliable way to communicate at high speed and low cost with thousands of NGOs in over 70 countries worldwide. Each network has electronic mail that allows individuals to send private messages to other users and electronic "conferencing" that permits shared messages. To send a message to a user on another system or post a message to be read on a conference, the user needs only to connect to his "home" network host. Each host on the APC system connects to each of the other hosts -- some as often as every hour, but at least once a day -- for the exchange of mail and additions to shared conferences.

Several of the networks offer other services. On most of the nodes it is possible to send and receive Telex messages, send fax messages, and exchange e-mail with users at universities throughout the world on the academic networks such as BITNET and the Internet.

What is electronic mail?

Electronic mail is the use of the computer network to send messages or files to other users. Each user has a unique user name that makes up part of his mail address. The other part of the address is the abbreviation for the system or host where the user collects his or her mail. Each user has a private electronic mailbox on the host computer where his incoming mail arrives. In order to collect the mail the user simply gives commands to the host computer and the messages appear on his or her home computer screen.

In order to send a computer message most users prepare their messages with their personal computer before logging in. When they are connected to the host computer they "address" the electronic envelope with the e-mail address of the recipient and then command their personal computer to send or "upload" the completed message. The host computer takes care of the rest.

As an example, presented with an unexpected funding opportunity, a Canadian NGO based in British Columbia might need a proposal from an NGO project in New Guinea it wants to support. The NGO in Papua connects by phone link to the Pegasus network in Australia and sends the proposal addressed to the e-mail address of the Canadian NGO on The Web. In a matter of hours the proposal has been transferred to The Web host computer in Toronto. When a staff member at the Canadian NGO in B.C. logs in to check the daily mail the project update has already arrived in their electronic mail box. The staff member "down-loads" the report onto his personal computer and typesets it on her PC based laser printer when she finishes her log-in session. A professionally produced clean copy of the proposal The printed project update is delivered to the funding source in less than twenty-four hours at a total cost of approximately US$0.50.

What is an electronic conference?

Conferences are not unlike a large community bulletin board. Each conference is organized on specific subjects such as global warming, women's issues, tropical rainforests, or around a common problem such as the elaboration of a large project. Within each conference the users post messages in the form of new topics or responses to existing topics. Conferences can be private, where only a designated list of users can read, or public. Some public conferences are limited to who can read or post messages while others use a moderator to control inappropriate postings.

Because the APC host computers connect to one another by high speed telephone links there is a constant flow of information to and from each host. This data consists of electronic mail and additions to the conferences. Due to a special software developed for this type of conferencing, the conferences on the host computers around the world are continually updated with new messages posted on other networks. What that means is that a user in Brazil can respond with a message to a topic on the Alternex system that was posted by a user in Sweden. The Swedish system would have that message from Brazil as an update to their conference in less than twenty-four hours.

What does this have to do with UNCED?

The preparations for the upcoming United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in June 1992 in Brazil offer a unique opportunity for effective and creative use of electronic conferencing. It is envisioned that the networks can serve as a vehicle through which a broad based coalition of independent organizations and people can communicate in preparation for these and parallel meetings.

Maurice Strong, Secretary General of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), has expressed a clear interest in making use of electronic conferencing systems such as those of the APC system for the dissemination of information in preparation for UNCED, and for providing a vehicle for participation by NGOs and other interested parties in the proceedings and preparations leading into the conference.

A group of individuals on each of the APC hosts have begun preparations for the electronic discussions surrounding UNCED. The following computer conferences have been created:


These conferences are "official" conferences of the Secretariat of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. It is here that the most important documents in preparation for UNCED will be posted for reading and downloading. These conferences are read-only conferences. The Secretariat is responsible for the posting and maintenance of these conferences.


The purpose of this conference is to create a public forum for the sharing of ideas, plans, activities, and other relevant matters that organizations are involved in before, during, and after the UNCED 1992 Conference. EN.UNCED.GENERAL is a public conference, and thus provides a unique opportunity for open access to participate in the most significant international conference addressing the survival of people and the earth

Because the 1992 Conference spans a broad range of distinct, though related topics, and is an unprecedented opportunity to participate in international dialogue between non-government organizations, the EN.UNCED.GENERAL conference is being designed in a way that will allow it to be structured into a number of sub-conferences. As and when the restructuring occurs, participants will be able to focus their attention in those areas where they can be most effective, and develop close-knit "electronic working groups" with their counterparts in substantive areas, in their region, or around the world.

What do you need to participate?

You need five things to "log-in" to the UNCED conferences:

  1. A personal computer. Any type will do; Mac, PC, Atari, or even an inexpensive laptop.

  2. A modem. This is a device that connects your computer to a telephone line. Modems can be bought for as little as US$80 or as much as several hundred dollars. Shop around!

  3. A communications software package. This can be bought commercially or obtained from your APC network host. Some thoughtful programmers have even provided "share-ware" programs for free or for a small voluntary donation.

  4. Access to a telephone line. If you are in the local calling area of a major metropolitan area, this will frequently only involve a local telephone call,

  5. An account with one of the APC networks. These systems are non-profit and have a large number of volunteers so the costs are very low. Here is who you contact for information on connecting up:

Rue Vincente de Souza 29
2251 Rio de Janeiro
+55 (21) 286 0348

Fredsnaetet (PeaceNet Sweden)
Timmermansgraend 4
S-116 27 Stockholm
+46 (8) 720 0001

25 Downham Rd
London N1 5AA
+44 (071) 923 2624

Institute for Global Communications Networks (IGC)
(PeaceNet, EcoNet, HomeoNet, ConflictNet)
3228 Sacramento Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
+1 (415) 923-0900

Proyecto de Telecommunicacion/Nicarao
Apartado 3516
+505 (2) 26228

Pegasus Networks (EarthNet)
PO Box 424
The Epicentre, Border Street
Byron Bay 2481 NSW
+66 (8) 56789 (support)

The Web
456 Spadina Avenue, 2nd floor
Toronto, Ontario M5T 2G8
+1 (416) 929-0634

How do I log-in if I don't live close to a host computer?

Most countries in the world (either by private or government initiative) have developed special data transmission networks. These systems, called Public Switching Networks or Packet-Switching Networks (PSN) are special high quality telephone lines that allow hundreds of computer-to-computer "conversations" at the same time. These PSNs drastically reduce the cost of sending data in comparison to conventional telephone calls.

Most of the national PSNs are connected to the PSNs of other countries, allowing international data transfer. In this way it is possible for a user in Buenos Aires to make a local telephone call and connect directly into the Alternex system in Rio de Janeiro, without paying for a long-distance telephone call.

In some countries you have to set up an account with your country's PSN network. Your APC host can assist you in doing this. In other countries the charges for using the PSN are charged on your monthly bill from the host.

How do I learn how to use the network once I get an account?

Each of the APC hosts publishes a user manual. In addition to this manual there are hundreds of users who volunteer to help out new users. If you should have any problems there are many of us out there more than willing to help you out. Remember: computer networking is so new that even the most experienced user of today was a novice only a few years ago.

It will make a difference!

It was not so long ago that many of us began to make use of computers for word processing -- or writing, as it used to be called. As we overcame what was often an initial resistance, we discovered a dramatic increase in our ability to develop, fine-tune, and present written communication.

Those who have taken the next step with a computer, into electronic conferencing and electronic mail, are increasingly discovering that as we learn to make effective use of this process, the transition from using conventional mail, or even fax machines, to electronic networking is as powerful an advance in effective communication, planning and participatory decision-making as was the transition from writing to word processing.


The Canadian Council for International Cooperation and the all of the individuals involved in electronic networking in preparation for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development look forward to meeting you on-line.

Please share this guide with others who might have an interest in electronic conferencing. The text of this guide is posted on the EN.UNCED.GENERAL conference, so that if you are already on-line, you can obtain an electronic copy of the text, so that you can reprint all or part of it in a format of your choice.

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