United Nations System-Wide
(New York, 19 January 1996)


The meeting on Common/Compatible Systems of Access to Data was convened in New York, on 19 January, by the United Nations Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development (DPCSD) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in cooperation with the Information Systems Coordination Committee (ISCC) and the International Computing Centre (ICC), and hosted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Mr. Jerry Barton, the representative of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is the lead agency for the ISCC Task Force on Information Access and Dissemination, served as Chair. A list of participants is contained in Annex I.


The meeting was organized in response to a decision by the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), at its third session in April 1995, in which it

"noted the importance of developing, among the organizations of the United Nations system, a common or compatible system of access to their respective data bases, in order to share data fully, to streamline the collection and interpretation of data and to identify data gaps, for the purpose of providing more comprehensive and integrated data to decision-makers at national, regional and international levels."

The Commission further invited

"the IACSD to refine measures for establishing such a common or compatible system and to report thereon to the Commission at its fourth session."

The Inter-agency Committee for Sustainable Development (IACSD) agreed that there was need for further action, bearing in mind the role of the ISCC and ICC, and invited the Task Managers (DPCSD and UNEP) in consultation with focal points in concerned UN organizations to consider how to:

identify relevant socio-economic data systems to complement Earthwatch and to provide input in the work on projections and models in the context of the work-programme on Changing Production and Consumption Patterns;

develop modalities for cooperation between the generators of the data and models with a view to allowing better accommodation, where possible, of the requirements relating to sustainable development;

continue their substantive review of information systems related to sustainable development as initiated in the report to CSD3 on Chapter 40; with due regard for the roles of, and necessary interaction with, ISCC and ICC;

address the issue of the home pages related to sustainable development on the world wide web and the development of "hot links" between them.

Summary of the Discussion

The Primary Users

Identification of the primary users is important both to determine what data need to be made available and the means through which it should be made available. The meeting agreed that the primary users of a system of common access should be decision-makers at national, regional and international levels.

Consequently, the participants decided that the only current and feasible means of providing common access to UN system data was through the Internet. Among the electronic means available, the Internet is the most technically accessible to decision-makers at all levels. At the same time, everyone was aware of the fact that a number of states, and particularly developing and least developed states, may not yet have access to the Internet due to telecommunication, infrastructural and technological constraints. The participants therefore emphasized that their recommendation to pursue common access through the Internet is based on the following suppositions:

1. That Development Watch, in conjunction with the Sustainable Development Networking Programme (SDNP) and other information related activities of UNDP, as well as information support programmes from other organizations, such as the World Bank, will proceed with assisting all states to establish Internet links by the year 2000;

2. That those states that do not yet have Internet access may rely on access through their Missions to the United Nations in the interim;

3. That UN system information will remain available in print, diskette and CD-ROM, as applicable.


The meeting discussed the principles that should underlie the design of any UN information system and agreed to the following:

Subsidiarity. It is in the nature of the UN system that information is collected for many purposes by innumerable organizational entities and held in many forms and places. This is a strength to build on, since it keeps information close to those who have collected it and who know its uses and limitations. Any information system should keep things decentralized and near to data collectors and users.

Responsibility. Those who collect or originate data should be responsible for its accuracy and appropriateness. The system should not allow data to be cut off from their sources or to collect at secondary locations where they can go out of date. Data should always be accompanied by meta-data, including date, origin and conditions for access, and should not be alterable except by the responsible parties.

Transparency. To the extent possible, information should be freely available for all non-commercial users. All those involved in decision-making processes should have access to the same information with the highest standards of reliability.

Efficiency. Data should only be collected once, by one responsible entity, avoiding unnecessary duplication (apart from that needed for quality control) and simplifying reporting requirements. This will require consultation mechanisms to determine which entities in the system are best placed to collect and assess which kinds of data on behalf of the whole system. Some cost-sharing mechanisms may also be appropriate. The corollary of this is that data, once collected, should be readily and rapidly available to any others who need it.

Economy. Investment in the system should where possible be less than or equivalent to that now made in collecting and processing information manually and in responding individually to the many requests now made.

These principles or design parameters suggest a UN information system where each organization is responsible for collecting and posting data within its areas of responsibility, coupled with a common access and search capacity that can tap easily into information across the system.

Data Content

Information for decision-makers should be of good quality, reliable, timely, relevant and processed. Data products, with value added, should form the basic content. In establishing a system of common access, data should be organized by subject, consistent with the topics covered by the forty chapters of Agenda 21, and the organization reviewed at alater stage on the basis of actual demand. Data that relate to the indicators of sustainable development that are being developed on behalf of the CSD should be included and especially coded in a manner that would facilitate their common retrieval. The design plan should also have as an objective the creation of a virtual country data base. Interaction with the system will be predefined but should move toward transactional queries as soon as feasible. In order to identify more specifically the information on sustainable development that should be included in a system of common access,

it was recommended that the Task Managers for the chapters of Agenda 21 be given the responsibility to identify, within their respective chapters, the relevant data bases of processed information within the UN system, the server on which these data bases are maintained, the source of the data and the units responsible for maintaining the data. Particular attention should be given to data that relates to the indicators of sustainable development. Relevant information that is not available electronically should be identified and reference given to ways in which to access it (e.g., how to request; how to order). This information should be provided to DPCSD, as the Task Manager for Chapter 40, in time to report to the 1997 Special Session of the CSD.

The Meeting also addressed Principles for a Data Access Policy specifically in relation to high-level processed information on sustainable development. These included the following:

In principle, data collected by and stored within the UN system should be in the public domain, freely available to all users, unless Member States have specifically prohibited open access.

All data should, as far as possible, be accompanied by an acknowledgment of sources and the metadata necessary to ensure quality, timeliness and appropriateness for different uses.

In special cases, data access may be restricted for any of the following reasons:

a. The data are covered by government-defined restrictions based on strategic, security or sovereignty considerations;

b. The data have commercial significance, would reveal trade secrets, are covered by intellectual property rights, or would give illegitimate holders an unfair commercial or trade advantage;

c. The data are normally sold as part of a data commercialization or cost-recovery programme.

Where data are so restricted, they shall be shared with other parts of the UN system for internal use without charge, provided that the specified restrictions accompany and are not separated from the data, and are respected by the users.

Such data will not be shared outside the UN system except with official partners in UN-sponsored joint activities, where the partner agrees to be bound by and to respect the same conditions and restrictions.

Restricted data may be used to prepare derivative or combined information products, provided that they are so processed as to protect the interests for which they are restricted, and in such a way that the original data cannot be restored or reconstructed from the derivative product.

Where charges are normally levied for data, these charges will be waived for reasonable amounts of internal use by UN system partners on the principle of reciprocity, and with the understanding that such data will not be made available to outside users who would normally purchase such data from the original supplier.

The meeting accepted these principles and forward them to the IACSD and the ISCC for further action.

Coordination with the ISCC and the ICC

In order to ensure full coordination between the work of the Meeting and that of the Information Systems Coordination Committee (ISCC) and the International Computing Centre (ICC), the Chair of the ISCC and the Director of the ICC were invited to discuss the roles of their respective organizations, particularly as they relate to the issue of establishing a common system of access to UN system data bases.

The ISCC has as its principal function the provision of medium- and long-term strategic views to the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC) on information systems technology and services. Its primary goal is to promote open access to information, for which purpose it reviews areas that might require standardization and/or the establishment of "best practices." It organizes itself into issue-oriented Task Forces, among them currently, one on Information Access and Dissemination. Three products of this Task Force are particularly relevant to this Meeting: the establishment of a UN System Web locator, which is a comprehensive Web page for the entire UN system, to be housed at the ICC (by end 1996); the development of a model information access policy as a recommended "best practice"; and the identification of the most appropriate tools for searching UN system-related information across Web sites (by September 1996)

Other Task Forces of relevance to the work of the Meeting are those dealing with library cooperation to establish a system-wide mechanism for searching bibliographic data; with the identification of areas where standards and best practices are needed; and with document management strategies, particularly within organizations.

The ICC is a service provider of information technology on a cost-recovery basis and has as its clients the United Nations Organization and twenty-one of the specialized agencies in the UN system. It focuses particularly on the design, construction and maintenance of data bases and on creating software to improve human-computer interaction. The Director stressed the point that, while electronic information services are efficient and effective, their initial investment costs are high, and these costs must be considered from the outset. For example, the recently-installed Integrated Management Information System (IMIS) in the UN was completed at a cost of US$80 million over a period of seven years. In total, the UN system is currently spending approximately US$500 million per year on all of its information requirements.

The ICC, with its technical innovations group, would be available to assist in developing a system of common access to UN system data bases related to sustainable development.

The meeting noted the complementarity between its work and that of the ISCC and the ICC and recommended that close coordination with the ISCC and the ICC should continue. It also recommended that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as one of the major providers of information related to sustainable development, should participate more actively in the work of the ISCC.

Common Access

Suggestions for providing access ranged from hot-links among a series of World Wide Web sites to be set up by each of the relevant organizations, to using a common interface, to setting up a data warehouse. Issues of creating a common "front end," to constructing specialized search engines, to developing a thesaurus for sustainable development, to the emerging "agent technology" were also discussed. Reference was made to a number of ongoing activities, including DPCSD's plan to create a 25,000-page compendium and index and DESIPA's StatBase Locator, available on CD ROM. The ICC submitted a suggested "Roadmap" for proceeding with the task of creating common access (see Annex II). Based on what it considered to be the most cost-effective and feasible option, consistent with the work of the ISCC and the ICC, and the most relevant to decision-making,

the Meeting recommended the following:

a. That the UN System-wide WEB Locator Home Page being established by the ISCC and ICC contain hot-links to the proposed Sustainable Development Home Page;

b. That a Sustainable Development Home Page be established on the World Wide Web (see below), with hot links to the "value-added" data bases identified by the Agenda 21 Task Managers. The IACSD should determinewhich organization in the UN system should take the lead role in setting up such a Home Page;

c. That a Sustainable Development thesaurus be developed by the end of 1996, using the UNBIS thesaurus as the starting point. The thesaurus should include, inter alia, standardized country codes, as a basis for creating a virtual country directory and data base, and standardized codes for data related to the indicators of sustainable development, as a basis for creating a virtual indicator directory.

d. It is recommended that an amount of US$53,000 be allocated to support the cost of contracting a consultant to develop the thesaurus and design the Home Page. Full terms of reference would be provided by the Task Managers for Chapter 40.

e. That, once the thesaurus has been developed and accepted, standard procedures should be adopted among all UN system organizations whereby the authors of relevant value-added documents, reports, publications, etc., index their material by use of the thesaurus and work toward increasing compatibility among their data bases.

f. The IACSD should establish an operational support structure and review mechanism for the Home Page and the relevant data bases to which it refers. For this purpose, the IACSD may wish to consider using its annual meeting of Task Managers.

The Home Page

The Home Page would provide "hot-links" to pass users directly to the electronic sites of the organizations holding the appropriate information, or to information "warehouses" where preprocessed information is stocked and updated regularly from the agencies. The proposed thesaurus should help to make this transfer as seamless as possible.

As far as possible, the system should be built and maintained with information already collected and assessed by the partners. It should have mechanisms for internal monitoring of the use of the system, so that parts receiving heavy use can be strengthened and expanded, and those used little or not at all can be simplified or cut back. It should be able to grow and adapt to the real needs of its users.

Each document should have an electronic cover sheet for all the information necessary to facilitate its access: title, source, document number, date and time frame, type, abstract, key words, geographic area, contact for further information or for ordering published material, and relationship to the indicators of sustainable development. Search tools should be considered in the context of what is being proposed by the ISCC. It would be desirable toprovide access in at least the working languages of the United Nations, consistent with the ISCC UN System Home Page.

Further definition of the Home Page will result from an identification of the data bases to be included, and their home servers, and from the development of a sustainable development thesaurus.


The IACSD suggested that modalities for cooperation between the generators of data and of models be developed. The Meeting noted that this was discussed during the third meeting of the Earthwatch Working Party, convened by UNEP 17-18 January 1996, in New York (see Report of the Meeting, UNEP/EWWP3/7), and would be one of the main foci of discussion in the Workshop on Core Data Sets, to be held 22-23 January 1996, also in New York. In order to avoid duplication, it was agreed to defer discussion and conclusions on this topic to the other meetings.

The Meeting did note that there are now seven separate but related and complementary efforts underway within the UN System, and within the context of Chapter 40 of Agenda 21, to improve the availability of information for decision-making. These include the following:

i. Development Watch, which includes efforts to build information capacity at the national level (infrastructure and training), to coordinate national and local data sources, to coordinate international actors involved in information at the national level, to test the usefulness of indicators of sustainable development, to promote the use of common core data sets , including social and economic statistical information, and to help streamline national reporting requirements. The lead organization for this task is UNDP.

ii. Earthwatch, which is primarily a global level system of environmental assessment but, set in the context of sustainable development, also has social and economic components. The lead organization for the UN System-wide Earthwatch is UNEP.

iii. Common access to information, which is relevant to national, regional and international levels, and applicable to all data sets related to sustainable development. It is likely to interact with Development Watch and Earthwatch and have important implications to streamlining national reporting requirements, a social and economic information system, and common core data sets. The lead organizations are DPCSD and UNEP.

iv. Indicators of sustainable development. Indicators are being developed primarily for use by decision-makers at the national level but may also be employed for purposes of developing a social and economic informationsystem, common core data sets and streamlining national reporting requirements. The lead organization is DPCSD.

v. Streamlining national reports. This is a new area of expressed concern within the IACSD with the objective of reducing the reporting burden on national governments. It is likely to make use of both indicators and common core data sets and have direct relevance to Development Watch. The lead organization is DPCSD.

vi. Common core data sets. This is an effort to standardize the data sets used by the UN system for assessment, modelling and reporting purposes. It is likely to be related to Development Watch, indicators, a social and economic information system, streamlining national reporting requirements, and common access to information. The lead organization is UNEP.

vii. United Nations economic and social information system. This is a new effort to put make more consistent and compatible the social and economic statistical information being used through the UN System. It is related to common core data sets and indicators and has relevance for Development Watch, Earthwatch, and common access. The lead organization is DESIPA.

The Meeting noted that there is a need to ensure the continued effective coordination among all of these activities not only to avoid duplication but also to try to ensure that each benefits to the maximum extent from the others. The back-to-back-organization of meetings on Development Watch, Earthwatch, Common Access and Core Data Sets, from 15 to 23 January, 1996, in New York, was one major effort to launch this coordination. In addition,

the Meeting proposes that annual meetings be organized by DPCSD, in cooperation with DESIPA, UNEP and UNDP, to assess progress in each activity and to maximize the interaction among them, as appropriate.

The participants in the Meeting decided that they would communicate electronically through a list server housed at the ICC, under the auspices of the ISCC.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Meeting requested that its conclusions and recommendations, as contained herein, be forwarded to the seventh meeting of the Inter-agency Committee on Sustainable Development and to the fourth session of the Commission on Sustainable Development.

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  Annex 1
(New York, 19 January 1996)


ISCC Mr. John Northcut
Principal Officer and Secretary
Information Systems Coordination Committee
Palais des Nations
CH-1211 Geneva 10. Switzerland
Tel: (41-22) 798-8591
Fax: (41-22) 740-1269
email: Northcut@uniscc.org


Ms. Mary Pat Williams Silveira
Senior Officer, HDIT Branch
Division for Sustainable Development
Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development
United Nations
No. 2 UN Plaza - Room 2250
New York, New York 10017, USA
Tel: (212) 963-8428
Fax: (212) 963-1267
email: silveira@un.org

Mr. Xiaokun Xu
Information Support Unit
Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development
United Nations
No. 2 UN Plaza - Room 1332
New York, New York 10017, USA
Tel: (212) 963-3373
Fax: (212) 963-4444
email: xiaokum@un.org

Mr. Giovanni Carissimo
Environment Statistics Section
Environment, Energy and Industry Statistics Branch
Statistics Division
Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis
United Nations
No. 2 UN Plaza - Room 1532
New York, New York 10017, USA
Tel: (212) 963-8491
Fax: (212) 963-9851
email: carissimo@un.org

Ms. Reena Shah
Environment, Energy and Industry Statistics Branch
Statistics Division
Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy analysis
United Nations
No. 2 UN Plaza, Room 1656
New York, New York 10017, USA
Tel: (212) 963-4586
Fax: (212) 963-9851
email: shahr@un.org


Mr. Peter Gilruth
Technical Advisor
Environmental Information Systems
Office to Combat Desertification and Drought
United Nations Development Programme
3304 East 45th Street, Room FF-954
New York, New York 10017, USA
Tel: (212) 906-6622
Fax: (212) 906-6345
email: peter.gilruth@undp.org

Ms. Eva Lokko
Division for Administrative and Information Services
United Nations Development Programme
No. 1 UN Plaza - Room
New York, New York 10017, USA
Tel: (212) 906-5182
Fax: (212) 906-6663

Mr. Richard Labelle
Global Information Analysis
32, rue des Parulines
Hull, Quebec, Canada J9A IZ7
Tel: (819) 778-8594
Fax: (819) 778-7958
email: riabelle@web.apc.org
Consultant to the Sustainable Development Networking Programme UNDP


Mr. Arthur Dahl
UN System-Wide Earthwatch
United Nations Environment Programme
Case Postale 356
1219 Châtelaine, Geneva, Switzerland
Tel: (41-22) 979-9207
Fax: (41-22) 797-3471
email: adahl@unep.ch

Mr. Ronald G. Witt
Global Resource Information Database, Geneva
11, chemin des Anèmones
1219 Châtelaine, Geneva, Switzerland
Tel: (41-22) 979-9294/95
Fax: (41-22) 979-9029
email: rgwitt@gridi.unep.ch

Mr. Philippe Pelt
Project Officer - Natural Hazards
Global Resource Information Database, Geneva
11, chemin des Anèmones
1219 Châtelaine, Geneva, Switzerland
Tel: (41-22) 979-9294/89
Fax: (41-22) 979-9029
email: pelt@gridh.unep.ch


Mr. Michael Hage
Liaison Officer
FAO Liaison Office with the United Nations
Two United Nations Plaza
New York, New York 10017, USA
Tel: (212) 963-0985
Fax: (212) 888-6188
email: fao-luno@cgnet.com

Mr. Jerry Barton
Head, Computer User Liaison Service
International Atomic Energy Agency
Wagramer Strasse 5
P.O. Box 100
A-1400 Vienna, Austria
email: barton@nepol.iaea.or.at

Mr. Yves Tourre
Scientific Adviser
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Columbia University
Palisades, New York 10964, USA
Tel: (914) 365-8812
Fax: (914) 365-8156
email: tourre@ldeo.columbia.edu

Mr. Michel Jarraud
Deputy Secretary-General
World Meteorological Organization
41 Avenue Giuseppe-Motta
CasePostale 2300
1211 Geneva2, Switzerland
Tel: (41-22) 730-8111
Fax: (41-22) 734-2326
email: jarraud_m@gateway.wmo.ch

Dr. Edward Gelbstein
International Computing Centre
Palais des Nations
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
Tel: (41-22) 929-1401
Fax: (41-22) 929-1413
email: gelbstein@unicc.org

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UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination, Geneva