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On The Line:
Interactive Preparations for the First Earth Summit

Networking & Communication Resources Exhibition/Demonstration
for the
International NGO Conference, Paris, December 17-20, 1991

Draft Proposal

Table of Contents
    1. Overview of Project
      a. Background and History
      b. Electronic Networking
      c. Interactive Documents
      d. Integrating Print & Electronics
      e. Databases
      f. Resources
      g. Workshops/Demonstrations

    2. The Conference Electronic Network
      a. On-site network points
        i. "Electronic Network Host"
      b. Off-site network points
        i. FrontDoor/FidoNet
        ii. Association for Progressive Communications Networks
        iii. Minitel
        iv. GeoNet

    3. Interactive Documents
      a. Compendium
      b. Synthesis
      c. People's Action Agenda
      d. "Participate"

    4. Integration of Print & Electronics
      a. Conversion between text files and print
      b. Binary word processing files
      c. Fax from e-mail
      d. Optical Scanner

    5. Resources
      a. Manuals
      b. Diskettes

    6. Databases
      a. Membership/Contact Database
        i. Model Design
        ii. Reports and Applications

    7. Document database
      a. Structure
        i. Bibliographic information
        ii. Abstract/Annotation
        iii. Key Words
        iv. Full Text
        v. Related Documents
      b. Contents
        i. Conference Documents
        ii. UNCED/PrepCom Documents
        iii. On-line Documents/discussion
        iv. Related documents

    8. Participating/Supporting Organizations/Agencies -- to be Invited

On The Line: Interactive Preparations for the First Earth Summit
Networking & Communication Resources Exhibition/Demonstration
International NGO Conference, Paris, December 17-20, 1991

Draft Proposal

1. Overview of Project: The Networking and Communication Resources project will provide an exhibition and demonstration of computer-based networking and communication resources during the Global NGO Conference to be held in Paris from December 17-20./1 The centerpiece of the exhibition will be a "FrontDoor/FidoNet" electronic communications node, which will be used to facilitate and coordinate internal communications within the conference and to maintain communications with non-government organizations throughout the world via integration of electronic and print communications./2

    a. Background and History: The project has evolved from an extensive process of planning and preparation -- by a number of independent organizations and networks -- for communications and access to information that would facilitate effective NGO participation in the preparations for, and follow-up to, the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)./3 The project will include planning meetings to which the key people who have been involved in the planning process will be invited, as well as open workshops and demonstrations on Networking and Communication Resources.

    b. Electronic Networking: The critical role of electronic communications as a vehicle for UNCED-related information has been recognized since the beginning of the UNCED PrepCom process./4 The high cost and unreliability of telephone service in developing countries and in Eastern and Central Europe has been a major barrier that has prevented many NGOs from being able to make use of the power of electronic communications./5 However, the project will feature a communications process -- FrontDoor/FidoNet -- that overcomes many of the barriers to utilization of electronic communications./6

    c. Interactive Documents: A key component of the Paris NGO conference has been the development and compilation of a set of documents -- a "Compendium of People's Organizations' Responses to Environment and Development Challenges", a synthesis based on the compendium, and a "People's Action Plan"./7 A key objective of the conference is discussion and adoption of a People's Action Plan. The project will develop and operate a process by which these documents become "interactive documents", through which the conference participants will be able to comment and respond to the documents in a manner that will greatly enhance the extent of meaningful opportunity for participation. In addition, as a vehicle for enabling public comment on the conference documents, as well as on aspects of the overall conference process, the project will facilitate a participatory newsletter/bulletin, "Participate", that will be published several times a day during the conference./8 "Participate" will be available in print and in electronic format.

    d. Integrating Print & Electronics: A critical issue for the effective use of electronic communications is the integration of its power and speed with a printed format that is useful for the vast majority of people who do not have direct access to electronic communications./9 The project will demonstrate some of the principal methodologies that are available, including the transmission of typeset word processing files in "binary" format./10 A principal vehicle for the demonstration of this methodology will be through the use of the electronic communications node to coordinate the compilation, production and transfer of in-conference documents. The project will also set up document scanners at the conference for translating documents into electronic format that participants bring for inclusion in the Compendium.

    e. Databases: The project will develop, compile, demonstrate, and make available a full text, indexed, annotated, searchable database of UNCED-related documents. The full text database will be developed to address a critical need for effective organization of, and access to, the rapidly growing body of UNCED-related documents./11 The database will be developed in a manner that allows information in it to be accessible through on-line inquiries through the FrontDoor software. In addition, the project will demonstrate the benefits to an organization of making effective use of a database for membership records and for maintenance of names, addresses, phone numbers, etc. and will develop a model database that will be made available to participants.

    f. Resources: The project will prepare and make available resources that can assist the conference participants in using the exhibited methods and processes when they return to their own countries. The resources to be developed include a manual and training resources for FrontDoor users; a guide for organizations interested in setting up a local communications node using the FrontDoor system; the database, with documentation, for the full text and membership databases, including diskette-based copies of key UNCED-related documents.

    g. Workshops/Demonstrations: The project will host planning meetings -- to be held during the Plenary sessions of the conference -- for key people involved in the development and implementation of UNCED-related information and communications strategy, and will present workshops for conference participants on the use of networking and communication resources.

2. The Conference Electronic Network: The heart of the exhibition/demonstration will be the establishment of an electronic network, based on the FrontDoor/FidoNet model, that will be operating throughout the conference, and will be designed to facilitate communication between the conference participants and the conference secretariat, as well as to allow the process to be monitored by observers at the conference site and from locations around the world. In addition to the intrinsic value of this feature for the Paris conference, the implementation of the communications network will serve as a pilot for communications during the June 1992 UNCED./12

    a. On-site network points: The network that will be in place during the conference will have two logically distinct components, the first of which will be a network of computers in various locations throughout the conference site./13

      i. "Electronic Network Host": An ELCI/Paris node of FidoNet -- based in an on-site computer at the conference site -- will function as the "Electronic Network Host" for the conference./14 All conference-related communications will be routed through the host computer./15 Conference staff, support personnel, as well as all conference participants, will each be given a network address to be used during the conference./16 Several distinct clusters of network participants can be identified, members of each of which may typically have different communication needs./17

        (1) Secretariat: The Secretariat office during the conference will be the principal site of final document production, as well as of overall communications within the conference, and the Network Host will be housed here. Three microcomputers, supported by two laser printers, will be needed for information processing by the Secretariat. In addition to the administrative staff for the conference, it will house work areas for the rapporteurs when they are not on location in plenary and workshop sessions; the rapporteurs will share three laptop computers.

        (2) Drafting Committee: A drafting committee that has been involved in preparing the Conference documents will be meeting throughout the conference with a mandate to respond to the concerns that are brought up by participants, and to develop proposed revisions to the People's Action Plan. Two desktop computers are projected to be needed for the drafting committee, to be supplemented by two or more personal laptops belonging to members of the drafting committee.

        (3) "Participate" newsletter/bulletin: In order to strengthen the opportunities for participants to have input into the conference process (see "Interactive documents", page 5 below), the project will publish "Participate", an informal newsletter/bulletin that will brief messages and comments from participants. "Participate" will have two principal components -- a free form space in which comments can be made about any aspect of the conference; a section for comments directed to the People's Action Plan, including specific recommendations for changes in wording. Messages or notices will be limited to 150 words or so, and issues of the bulletin will be published as soon as enough material has been accumulated to fill four sides of paper, or a single A3 sheet printed on both sides and folded.

        (4) Exhibition Hall: The exhibition area would be the primary location where conference participants would be able to interact directly with the on-line information system. Two microcomputers with modems -- one with a large projection video display -- would be dedicated to demonstrations of electronic communications and of database applications; two other microcomputers, with access to a printer, would be available for the use of conference participants to write brief interventions either for independent distribution, or for submission to the "Participate" newsletter/bulletin. In addition, a work area will be available with eight work spaces and adequate electrical outlets, at which participants will be able to use their own laptops to prepare interventions or messages./18

        (5) Press Room: Press covering the Conference will be based in the "Salle d'Europe", as will the press manager for the conference. One microcomputer with modem would serve the on-line communication needs of the press manager; reporters with their own laptops and modems would also be able to access the on-line information, and would also be able to make their reports available on-line. In the event that an independent NGO newsletter is published during the conference, the staff of that newsletter would also be housed in the Press Room./19

        (6) On-site Observers: Provision has been made for on-site observers to monitor the conference proceedings through a large video display in the "Salle Laser". A desktop computer with modem and printer in the same room will permit the on-site observers to have access to the conference documents on screen and in printed format. It would also be possible for the on-site observers to submit comments on the conference from the standpoint of an observer./20

    b. Off-site network points: The second principal component of the network will be those organizations and individuals who monitor the conference proceedings electronically from remote locations. These can be best categorized by the type or affiliation of the electronic network to which they subscribe.

      i. FrontDoor/FidoNet: FidoNet is an extensive network of electronic bulletin boards that has been developing over more than ten years. The structure of FidoNet -- and the software which has been used to operate it -- allows communication between any pair of FidoNet nodes; since the operation of a FidoNet node requires relatively brief training and operates under the MS-DOS operating system, it provides a low cost, easy to implement means of electronic communication. The development of the FrontDoor software provides a cost-effective, robust and easy-to-use way of using electronic mail. The combination of FidoNet and FrontDoor thus provides ideal characteristics for an NGO communication system. Recent software modifications, still in the process of development, have created a much improved interface between FidoNet and the APC networks; this includes the capability for FidoNet users to "subscribe" to electronic conferences that are carried on APC. Because the interface between the traditional APC networks and the Fidonet nodes is still undergoing development, it will be particularly important to work closely with some key Fidonet nodes in preparing for the conference communications.

        (1) A SEED for UNCED: A project of European Youth Forest Action and the Student Environmental Action Coalition, A SEED for UNCED is a very active network of young people in Europe and North America who are bringing a youth perspective to UNCED. The size of this project, the fact that young people tend to be much more comfortable with computers than are some veteran NGO representatives, and an eagerness to become involved in electronic communications could easily result in this project becoming a major focus of UNCED-related electronic communications.

        (2) Brontosaurus: A FrontDoor/FidoNet node in Prague, Brontosaurus is pioneering the use of NGO electronic communications in Eastern Europe.

        (3) ELCI, Nairobi: The Environmental Liaison Centre International has been nurturing the development of a number of FrontDoor/FidoNet nodes in Africa./21

      ii. Association for Progressive Communications Networks (APC): The APC networks -- including GreenNet, EcoNet, Alternex, Pegasus and The Web -- have been the principal channels for electronic dissemination of UNCED-related information to date. The APC networks offer an extensive set of electronic conferences,/22 and the exchange of electronic mail among APC subscribers and through "electronic gateways" with participants in many other electronic networks, including Internet, BitNet and many university, non-profit and commercial electronic networks. Presentations and demonstrations will be made on the effective use of the APC networks, both from the perspective of ease of use and of cost-effectiveness; this will include presentation of information on the use of Packet Switching Networks/23 that can offer substantial savings compared to the cost of international phone calls.

        (1) Gateways from APC Networks: Besides offering electronic conferencing and electronic mail among its subscribers, the APC networks also provide a structure for communication with many other major electronic networks. These gateways include Fido gateways from other APC nodes besides GreenNet -- before long, each of the APC networks will have a FidoNet connection; Internet, which is a major university-based network as are UseNet and BitNet.

      iii. Minitel: The French government, through France Telecom has made a major investment in the Minitel system, through which every telephone subscriber in France is provided with a terminal and keyboard through which it is possible to obtain access to an extensive database of information. The Minitel system has also been installed in a number of former French colonies, including Senegal. With the support of the French government, it would be possible to make conference and UNCED-related information available on Minitel, and to devise a process by which people and organizations with access to Minitel could share their responses to the environment and development issues that the conference and UNCED are addressing.

      iv. GeoNet: The GeoNet network has been a carrier of UNCED-related documents since the inception of the Global Electronic Network, and serves a constituency that has tended to focus more on development issues, and is more based in developing countries than that of APC.

3. Interactive Documents: A high priority has been placed by the conference organizers on having the conference provide adequate opportunity for those attending to participate actively, and to have their voices heard in the decision making process leading to the adoption of a People's Action Plan. However, with an average of eighty-five participants in each workshop, and ten times that number in the plenary sessions, there will inevitably be strict limits on the extent to which it will be possible for all participants who wish to speak to do so. The project will establish a process by which the conference documents can become "interactive documents" where responses and comments of participants can be openly shared. The process of the interactive documents will significantly increase the opportunity for effective participation in the conference.

    a. Compendium:

    b. Synthesis

    c. People's Action Agenda

    d. "Participate"

4. Integration of Print & Electronics: The ability to convert information received through electronic communications into a printed format that is readily accessible and easy to disseminate is a key issue that must be resolved if an organization is to make effective use of electronic communications. The project will provide assistance and compile and make available information to participants to assist them in becoming more proficient at the following elements of translation between electronics and print.

    a. Conversion between text files and print: While almost all word processors can accept the text files/24 that are the primary format for information that is transmitted electronically, the ability to convert the text into an easily readable and attractive printed format requires some understanding of the distinction between ASCII and binary files, and is greatly enhanced by knowledge of some of the features of word processing programs./25

    b. Binary word processing files: The challenge of converting electronic information into readable format can be overcome by the use of binary files that

    c. Fax from e-mail: The ability to send fax messages through am electronic network is a valuable feature, and costs of using this method are often quite competitive with normal fax costs, especially when one takes into account the costs of having someone standing by a fax machine to send the same message to many different organizations.

    d. Optical Scanner: The role of an optical scanner can be very important as a means of converting printed information into an electronic format, so that it be more readily incorporated into the mainstream of UNCED-related documents.

5. Resources: The development of materials that can be used as tangible resources by the NGO delegates when they return home after the conference

    a. Manuals: To date, electronic communications have mostly been used by people and organizations that have considerable familiarity with computers, and the manuals for using it have tended to reflect that, with the result that they are often not easy to understand by novice users. This is especially true of the documentation and manual for the FrontDoor software that is written for the level of someone who is sophisticated in computer use. FrontDoor has some very easy to use features, and support for the development of a user manual would help to make those features, and the overall power and cost-effectiveness of using the FrontDoor software, much more widely available to NGOs.

    b. Diskettes: Even with the use of the most cost-effective means of electronic communications, the sheer volume of UNCED-related information that is available on line, and that can be a invaluable reference source for organizations involved in the preparations for UNCED and related activities means that on-line transfer of the documents is an expensive proposition. However, the use of readily available file compression programs can make it possible for as much as 3 megabytes of text to be stored on a high density 3.5" diskette./26

6. Databases

    a. Membership/Contact Database

      i. Model Design

      ii. Reports and Applications

7. Document database

    a. Structure

      i. Bibliographic information

      ii. Abstract/Annotation

      iii. Key Words

        (1) Substance

        (2) Scope

      iv. Full Text

      v. Related Documents

    b. Contents

      i. Conference Documents

        (1) Global NGO Document

        (2) Compendium

        (3) People's Action Agenda

      ii. UNCED/PrepCom Documents

        (1) Official PC Documents

        (2) Other Official Documents

        (3) Intergovernmental Papers/Reports

        (4) Government Interventions/Papers

        (5) NGO Interventions/Papers

        (6) Press Releases/News Reports

        (7) Newsletters, Crosscurrents, etc.

      iii. On-line Documents/discussion


        (2) en.unced.general

        (3) unced.dialogue

        (4) Other UNCED on-line conferences


      iv. Related documents

        (1) Books

        (2) Journal, magazine articles

8. Participating/Supporting Organizations/Agencies -- to be Invited: The history of the evolving interest in the effective use of electronic communications for UNCED-related information has already evoked a strong expression of interest in many quarters. A partial list of some of the key groups whose representatives have already expressed a clear interest in the process, and who will receive an invitation to take an active role and be identified as a co-sponsor of the project includes: Environmental Liaison Centre International; the member networks of the Association for Progressive Communications; NGONET '92; A SEED for UNCED (European Youth Forest Action/Student Environmental Action Coalition); GeoNet; Third World Network; U.S. Citizens Network on UNCED; Alliance of Northern People for Environment & Development; International Task Force; NGO Strategy Group; and Brontosaurus. Many of these organizations will have delegates who will either represent them at the Conference, or who are planning to attend as observers. The participating organizations will contribute to the project by providing expertise, by assisting in compiling and sharing information to which they have access, and by making arrangements for electronic participation in, or monitoring of, the conference by members or affiliates who are not able to be at the conference in person.


1/ It should be noted from the outset that the scale of this project is such that it may not be realistic to expect that all of the objectives will be accomplished by the time the Paris conference is over. The continuing development of information and communications technology, along with the relatively unbounded scope of the UNCED conference and of the information and communication possibilities that are associated with the UNCED preparations, calls for an ongoing open process of balancing needs for completion with longer term development needs, as does the project's commitment to an interactive, participatory process in which the outcome must remain indeterminate.

2/ A bibliography of some of the key planning documents for UNCED-related information and communications can be found in Appendix I.

3/ The use of electronic communications during the first PrepCom in Nairobi in August 1990, combined with the availability on-line of the official PC documents for that PrepCom marks the critical point at which the use of electronic communications moved from being an idea to becoming a source of tangible results. "Computer Communications & the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development: Alternative Technology for Communication & Participation by Non-government Organizations: A Concise Guide" (Goree & Pollard, August 1990), produced for the Nairobi PrepCom, was widely distributed and well received by NGOs, the UNCED Secretariat and delegates alike.

4/ See for example, "United Nations Conference on Environment and Development: Information, Public Participation & Communication System" (Information Habitat, June 1990).

5/ See for example the plans for NGONET '92 (NGONET, May, 1991) and "Information, Communications, Eastern Europe and UNCED" (Pollard, August 1991)

6/ For an overview of the features of FrontDoor/FidoNet, see "FrontDoor, Software for Poor Telephone Lines" in the July 1991 issue -- on the theme of Networking and Communications -- of ECOFORUM (ELCI, July 1991). Also, see "Gateway service provision between Fido and the APC" (Mortimer, July 1991).

7/ A fuller description of these documents can be found in "Global NGO Document for 1992" (ELCI, September 1991).

8/ The design and concept for the "Participate" newsletter is based on a proposal developed by Anthony Judge of the Union of International Associations for a similar newsletter/bulletin to be published during PrepCom III in Geneva. (Judge, June 1991).

9/ This issue received considerable attention at a Workshop on Environmental Computer Networks hosted by the United Nations Development Programme in June 1990 (Puliatti & Pollard, June 1990).

10/ The development of a methodology for the use of "camera ready" binary files for distributing documents was a central feature of the funding proposal for On The Line: Interactive Preparations for the First Earth Summit (On The Line, February 1991).

11/ This issue has been addressed in "Information, Environment and Development" (Pollard, June 1990), in the funding proposal for the U.S. Citizens Network on UNCED (U.S. Citizens Network, December 1990), as well as in the project plans of NGONET '92 (NGONET, May, 1991)

12/ Preparations are underway for a similar process to be implemented during the UNCED process in Rio de Janeiro, (Afonso, April, 1991), and a draft proposal has been formulated for a similar process for coordinating information flow and communications during the final UNCED PrepCom in March 1992. (Kat & Pollard, September 1991)

13/ A summary of the projected computer and communication needs for the conference is presented in Appendix II.

14/ The ELCI/Paris node would be established in mid-November at the Conference office in Paris, and would be used to coordinate pre-conference communications, to prepare the disk-based organization of materials for the conference, and to conduct pre-tests of communication. Provided "call forwarding" is available, the relocation of the node to the conference site will be transparent to those who communicate with the node.

15/ It is not absolutely necessary that there be a single node. An alternative model could have two (or more) nodes in operations during the conference, where the separate nodes would exchange information and files on a periodic basis. Under this arrangement, staff and volunteers, might have network addresses on a Secretariat node, participants on a Participant node, and a separate node could be operated for on site Observers.

16/ A network address in FidoNet has four components: a continent address (2 is Europe); one for the city (254 is London); a node address for that city; and a point from that node. Each participant will be given a separate address/point from the central node.

17/ The differentiation of types of users with potentially distinct information and communication needs brings up the issue of different rights and privileges regarding access to information. Such de facto distinctions may be made more visible than is typically the case in the context of this project and of a commitment to an open, participatory process.

18/ The need for adequate space and preparation for this function was clearly evident at PrepCom III in Geneva. A small space made available for NGO electronic networking during the PrepCom was quickly overwhelmed, and numerous problems were faced with access to appropriate electrical outlets, voltage supplies, and compatible telephone connections.

19/ The value of an independent NGO newsletter reporting on events such as this conference, and the capacity to produce such a newsletter is evidenced by the success of ECO during the Climate Negotiations, and of Crosscurrents during the 2nd and 3rd UNCED PrepComs. With the support of the Energy & Climate Information Exchange Project, ECO has been disseminated on-line simultaneously with its publication in print.

20/ The substantial attention that the conference organizers have devoted to obtaining geographic balance, and balance between environmental and development concerns among the participants raises some questions as to the extent that it would be appropriate for observers to have equivalent rights the participants in the extent to which they can participate electronically, as it is likely that the observers will be disproportionately representative of NGOs from Europe and North America, and that environmental NGOs will outweigh those whose primary focus is on development issues.

21/ See "Who's on FidoNet in Africa" in ECOFORUM (ELCI, July 1991) for a brief overview of these projects.

22/ An electronic conference is so named because it functions similarly in many respects to "real time" conferences. Participants can present papers (in electronic format); can comment on and respond to papers presented by others; and can "meet" people and engage in informal conversations, either publicly on the conference, or privately through electronic mail. The UNCED-related conferences are a small sub-set of all the APC conferences.

23/ The name Packet Switching Network refers to the process by which information being transmitted is broken into small segments or packets -- generally 128 bytes each -- which are sent separately and then put back together. The extent to which use of a Packet Switching Network can result in cost savings depends on a number of factors, including the total volume of data transferred, and the extent to which on-line time is used for browsing or data transfer.

24/ Text, or ASCII, files can only include standard characters of the Roman alphabet, Arabic numerals, and most punctuation marks and a few other "characters" such a new page, new line, and tab. Precluded are any accented or non-Roman characters, or control codes.

25/ For example, WordPerfect 5.1 -- one of the most powerful and widely used word processing programs -- allows for an "enhanced keyboard" through which keys can be redefined to perform special functions, including the basic functions that are most commonly needed to convert from poorly formatted text files to word processing files.

26/ To get a sense of perspective on the volume of data involved, one page of text generally contains about 3,000 characters or bytes, so 3 megabytes represents about 1,000 full pages of text; the UNCED documents prepared for PrepCom III comprise approximately 3.5 megabytes, and that is probably significantly less than half the volume of all the documents disseminated during the PrepCom.

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