United Nations System-Wide
  Extracts on strategy from E/CN.17/1995/18
Report of the Secretary-General

Information for decision-making and Earthwatch 

The report of the Secretary General to the 1995 CSD was based on an extensive review of environmental information activities in the UN system. The following extracts emphasize the strategic dimensions of the report of greatest continuing relevance. Annex II on Earthwatch has been integrated into the text. 

Stages of decision-making
The users of information
Indicators for sustainable development
Data collection and use
United Nations system-wide Earthwatch
Improvement of methods of data assessment and analysis
Establishment of a comprehensive information framework
Strengthening the capacity for traditional information
Production of information usable for decision-making
Standards and methods for handling information
Development of documentation about information
Establishment and strengthening of electronic networking capabilities
Making use of commercial information sources 

Stages of decision-making

4. Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 acknowledges that "everyone is a user and provider of information considered in the broad sense". Moreover, it notes that decision makers exist at all levels, from "the national and international levels to the grass-roots and individual levels". It stresses the need to bridge the "data gap" and to improve the availability of information through several activities designed to improve each step of the decision-making process (para. 40.1).

5. Decision-making is a cyclical process, with decisions engendering certain actions, the results of which feed back into new decisions. In general, this process is considered to involve five steps: (a) problem identification; (b) policy formulation; (c) implementation; (d) performance monitoring; and (e) evaluation. One does not move "up" from one step to the other, with a finite destination. The process is a loop, and each function may be viewed as an entry point.

6. The information required will vary with the nature of the decisions to be taken. Needs for each step may differ in some other respects as well. Problem identification requires scientific and technical data and the methodologies for their collection and interpretation. Those data will be drawn from performance monitoring and evaluation activities, as well as from other sources. For this purpose, performance monitoring evaluation, and problem identification may be viewed in tandem.

7. Policy formulation is likely to require additional data, related, for example, to the social, economic, technological and cultural conditions in a country. Technology assessment for potential solutions and other methodologies for assessment and forecasting are important here. Above all, policy formulation presupposes the existence of a strategy with objectives towards which the policies are directed.

8. Implementation depends upon information about local site conditions, including the actors who will assist in the implementation. Representation of major groups is particularly important as ensuring channels of information both from and to people at the grass-roots level.

9. Continuing performance monitoring and evaluation will show whether the policy and its implementation are effective and suggest where further problem identification and policy formulation are required.

10. Capacity-building efforts are crucial to all stages of decision-making. These include training in the collection, handling and use of data, as well as in assessment and other analytical techniques; establishing internal databases and information systems and linking them with external systems, as relevant; designing mechanisms for involving all major groups both as providers and as users of information; and creating the institutional support to sustain all of these functions.

11. All of the producers of information are also potential users. Decision makers at local and national levels, major groups and international organizations all communicate across levels as well as within them, for different purposes. Inputs may differ as outputs or targets vary, but this is not necessarily the case. The fact that in the past information supply, and not demand, has been emphasized highlights the present need for both information brokers and demand-driven information.

The users of information

12. The concept of "users" of information is a broader one than that of "decision makers", although all users generally seek information in order to make decisions. Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 addresses itself primarily to decision makers at the national political level, but other users are also important. Within a country, users may include the following:

(a) Economic planners within the central Government, who rely primarily on macroeconomic information that is provided by other government ministries and the national bureau of statistics;

(b) Sectoral ministries, public enterprises, and public agencies that usually rely on information collected nationally, through ministerial networks, and on data from international sources. Integration of the data may be difficult because of a lack of standardization and assessment methodologies;

(c) Researchers and analysts in universities, research institutions and similar non-governmental organizations, who represent an important source of analysis and modelling, and can function as technical information brokers for political decision makers;

(d) Private sector institutions and enterprises, which need very specific information and usually seek it through private means;

(e) Local-level data users, including major groups and their representative organizations, whose needs vary from data on weather and land use to microeconomic trends;

(f) Bilateral and multilateral institutions, which have needs for national-level-related information ranging from macroeconomic data to project- specific information.

13. Bilateral and multilateral institutions, including both intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, also have a need to exchange information among themselves, in order to increase harmonization and standardization and to profit from each other's experience with project design and implementation....

14. ...many of the elements for an effective information system for decision-making on environment and sustainable development are in place or are being developed at the international level. Considerable progress has also been made at the national level, through the efforts of Governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations system. This work needs, however, to be expanded and strengthened, and, in general, better linked at all levels.

15. Continuing emphasis must be placed not only on access to data, but also on developing the capabilities to collect, analyse, apply and disseminate data at the national and local levels. One of the more comprehensive ways in which countries are trying to address these issues is by developing national strategies or policies for sustainable development information, often within the context of national sustainable development strategies.

16. What also needs to be completed is the assembling of the various elements in a coherent process that moves information quickly from initial data collection (generally by Governments), through compilation and assessment, to delivery in forms decision makers can use....

17. The "information revolution" in new technologies such as electronic networks and computer imagery will make possible flows and uses of information that would have been inconceivable even a few years ago. There is in fact a danger of information overload, as the ability to collect and communicate information exceeds the ability to absorb and understand it.

18. Decision makers may not have the technical training to allow them to use information from scientific, technical or statistical sources in the most productive manner. They are likely to rely on an adviser who interprets the information for them. This requires a careful reconsideration of the information-supply process, as regards producing the critical elements from the assessment process in forms that can be understood and utilized. Indicators are one approach to this problem. Another is the use of "information brokers", to help interpret, manage, filter and add value to the flood of available information. The information broker is a facilitator who can raise awareness about what is available, and at what costs and for what purpose.

Indicators for sustainable development

19. Decision makers need concise information, put forward in a clear and unambiguous fashion and disembarrassed of minor details. The purpose is to illuminate certain phenomena or trends, through simplification, quantification and communication. 2/ In such form, indicators may not only be useful in improving information for decision-making, but may simplify reporting requirements as well through the replacing of extensive data or descriptive text by commonly agreed measures.

20. Agenda 21 recommends that countries at the national level and international governmental and non-governmental organizations at the international level should develop the concept of indicators of sustainable development in order to identify such indicators (para. 40.6) The value of indicators as policy instruments is enhanced when they are used in combination with targets that have been set as part of national policies.

Data collection and use

33. Countries and international organizations are requested in Agenda 21 to carry out inventories of environmental, resource and developmental data, based on national/global priorities. The objectives are primarily three: improved management of sustainable development; identification of gaps; and organization of activities to fill those gaps.

34. Particular reference is made in this context to the strengthening of the United Nations system-wide Earthwatch and the suggested creation of a Development Watch.... [There is a] wealth of activities across the United Nations system generating information useful for decision-making and the potential for assembling that information more effectively in support of national policy-making and environmental management and in implementation of Agenda 21.

36. Even where good data exist, the geographical coverage is in many cases neither consistent nor universal. This highlights the need for georeferencing of data and for coordinating the collection of data across sectors and organizations, at national and regional levels. For many sectors, local-level comparisons, such as intra-urban differences or intra-district differences, may also be critical in illuminating the issues and supporting the solutions.

United Nations system-wide Earthwatch

37. Earthwatch has constituted the framework, since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972, for the efforts of the United Nations system to monitor and assess the global environment. In response to the General Assembly and the UNEP Governing Council, the United Nations system-wide Earthwatch is being redesigned and strengthened as a closely linked collaborative set of international efforts to coordinate, harmonize and integrate observing, assessing and reporting activities.

38. The objective is to provide environmental and appropriate socio-economic information for national and international decision-making on sustainable development and for early warning of emerging problems requiring international action. This should include timely information on the pressures on, status of and trends in key global resources, variables and processes in both natural and human systems and on the response to problems in these areas.

39. The major issues that Earthwatch addresses include the following:

(a) Observing the capacity of land resources and the impacts of processes such as deforestation, soil degradation and desertification;

(b) Loss of natural areas and biodiversity;

(c) Protection of the atmosphere;

(d) Quantity and quality of freshwater resources;

(e) State of the oceans and coastal areas;

(f) Human health conditions and quality of life determined by the environment, including the living and working environment of the poor;

(g) Accumulation of wastes, particularly hazardous wastes, and chemicals;

(h) Risks of biotechnology.

In addition, Earthwatch must be alert to new and emerging issues, and in particular to the inevitable interactions between all these issues and development processes, where threats to development prospects and to human well-being may emerge. Thus the United Nations system-wide Earthwatch cannot be content to assess each problem separately, but must build the capacities to examine them all together and to draw out the key policy issues to be addressed by the international community.

40. Such an effort cannot be undertaken by any United Nations organization alone. It requires the combined efforts of the whole United Nations system and many outside partners, with each of the organizations with major environmental or resource concerns taking a lead in its particular sector, and with UNEP, in its coordinating role for the environment, looking at how all of the parts fit together into an integrated whole.

41. In implementing Earthwatch, the United Nations system will facilitate access to information on environmental activities, and to information held by each part of the system. It will identify possibilities for collaboration and mutual reinforcement in observation and assessment programmes within and outside the United Nations system. It will promote capacity-building for data collection, assessment and reporting, as well as improve the harmonization and quality control of data and the standardization of methodologies. Earthwatch will also facilitate the wider use of information and assessments from each partner in national and international decision-making, and seek to coordinate joint reporting on the global state of the environment and sustainable development. Earthwatch may also identify priorities for international action; give early warnings of emerging environmental problems; and share experience in applying new technologies and in increasing the impact of information. Earthwatch may also contribute to organizing coherent plans for activities responding to United Nations system-wide mandates such as Agenda 21.

II-1. In the strengthening of the system-wide Earthwatch since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), an Earthwatch Working Party of all the United Nations organizations concerned has been organized to facilitate the taking of decisions in common. UNEP has established a small Earthwatch secretariat to maintain a continuous liaison among the partners and to assist in implementing common activities.... The aim is to achieve maximum joint programming, collaboration and cooperation within available resources....

II-2. With respect to the need for operational early warning systems under Earthwatch, some components already exist and others are in preparation.... For longer-term early warning, the continuing observations being planned under the global observing systems for climate, oceans and the terrestrial environment, namely, the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) and the Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS), should be able to detect significant trends in global change, hopefully in time for the international community to take preventive action. UNEP is organizing the means to look at the interactions among all these critical elements of the global system, where interlinkages and feedbacks are most likely to provide surprises. Adequate support to these long-term operational environmental measurements and assessments will be necessary if they are to fulfil their early warning potential.

II-3. The United Nations system-wide Earthwatch incorporates both the environmental observing, assessment and reporting activities of each specialized agency in its sectoral area, and a wide range of inter-agency programmes that demonstrate the increasing coordination and cooperation throughout the United Nations system. International scientific, non-governmental and governmental organizations are often associated with these initiatives. Each participating organization is, within the limitations of available resources, strengthening its contributions to information for decision-making and improving its linkages with cooperating partners. UNEP is working with a group of leading research centres to develop tools such as computer models to integrate the many types of environmental and socio-economic data and eventually to prepare projections and scenarios that should help to give early warning of coming problems and provide decision makers with policy options for responding to them....

II-4. Many of the partners in Earthwatch are developing indicators for measuring progress in their particular sectors and on priority issues. Earthwatch will work for the maximum harmonization of such indicators, as well as for coherent sets of national- and regional-level environmental indicators as a contribution to the corpus of sustainable development indicators....

II-5. Earthwatch is exploring the potential for using public participation in data-collection efforts, including proposals for an Earthwatch campaign to obtain a much more complete view of the state of the world.... Such activities, if carefully planned to ensure scientific validity and proper quality control and assessment of the data collected, could involve schools, non-governmental organizations, the media and other groups in building a more complete picture of the status of species, land uses, development activities, pollution problems and the characteristics of the human and natural environment as inputs for the next UNEP "State of the World Environment" report and as a basis for selective continued monitoring of national and global trends. Such approaches have proved their worth in some countries, for instance by involving bird-watching groups in an annual census of bird populations. Initiatives to involve school classes in environmental monitoring will also be encouraged. Public participation will demonstrate to people that they can observe their own environment and draw their own conclusions about behaviour for or against sustainability, and will help them to understand the results of national and international public information efforts. Such programmes would require a major commitment on the part of United Nations organizations, Governments, non-governmental organizations, the media and even the private sector, but with potential benefits for all involved. This may be the only practical approach in the short term to closing the data gap in many developing countries.

II-6. One priority of Earthwatch is to work for a more rapid flow of information through the system and to target decision-making processes more directly, so that policy makers can receive more timely and appropriate information.

Improvement of methods of data assessment and analysis

50. ...national and local governments are taking the initiative in establishing data and information inventories. The development both of national frameworks for information and of indicators also represents an attempt by countries to improve data collection, assessment and analysis....

54. Most... agencies... have active programmes to develop standardized methods, harmonize definitions and classifications, and ensure quality control of the data collected. Such activities are essential to any use of information beyond the local area, and the lack of such common approaches in certain fields has prevented the global assessment of some significant problems. One way to build a common understanding of terms is to organize, in a coordinated manner, very detailed information that is location-sensitive.

55. A tool that is becoming increasingly important for the assessment of environment and development trends and their potential consequences is computer modelling. It is such models fed by large quantities of data that have supported the majority consensus of international scientific opinion on the potential for global warming from the greenhouse effect. use of models to integrate the many kinds of environmental, social and economic information and to study how they interact....

57. It is also possible to programme the judgements and decision processes of experts, and various types of scientific information, into computerized expert systems, which can be adapted to local situations, and to make such expertise more widely available to decision-makers than would otherwise be possible.... Expert systems may help to bridge the information gap created by the lack of adequate scientific expertise in many countries and the long time required to build that capacity through educational programmes and practical experience.

58. Information can be provided at various geographical scales ranging from the scale of the local community to that of the planet. Since the issues at each scale are different, specific information mechanisms are required at each level, but the general principles discussed here still apply. Similarly, some issues can be addressed with numerical or statistical data, while others require data referenced to specific geographical locations so that they can be mapped and related spatially to other data.

59. Assessments could be more meaningful in some instances if they could be compiled for agro-ecological zones, ecoregions, river basins, and geographical entities such as coastal areas and mountain regions.... If data are georeferenced with their precise locations when collected (this is now becoming much easier with global positioning systems), they can easily be correlated in space through geographical information systems. Much information is in fact collected at subnational scales, but it is generally combined into national statistics before being reported internationally, thus losing much of its value.

Establishment of a comprehensive information framework

61. ...a number of Governments are moving towards structural integration of environment- and development-related ministries, through national councils, commissions, and other coordinating machinery. These new organizations may serve as the focal points for integrating environmental and developmental information as well. The development of indicators for monitoring progress at the national level towards sustainable development, through the implementation of Agenda 21, should also assist in this process.

62. Efforts at both the international level and the national level rely on the involvement of relevant non-governmental as well as governmental and intergovernmental actors. Major groups, as represented in non-governmental organizations, are essential to the comprehensiveness of an information framework.

Strengthening the capacity for traditional information

63. Traditional information about environmental resources and sustainable forms of development needs to be brought into the national and international information systems. Participatory rural appraisal and planning and similar techniques can be encouraged as a part of systematizing traditional information. In the same manner that one may speak of "brokers" to help make a large amount of data accessible and relevant to national-level decision makers, so, too, should one consider the use of brokers to help translate traditional information into a readily usable format at all levels.


Production of information usable for decision-making

67. Information is disseminated, by the international community, through a variety of formats to a wide range of users. Annual and biennial reports and yearbooks contain largely textual and analytical information for a user who is likely to be more academic than political. Reports are prepared for intergovernmental and expert bodies; statistical data are made available through both printed and electronic form; and promotional material, such as brochures, bulletins, and newsletters, are regularly provided, primarily in print.

68. All of these are important and often, in fact, mandated. They are relevant to decision-making by popularizing areas related to sustainable development and thus helping to create an informed public; by providing technical data for scientists, engineers and other trained cadres who rely on these inputs for the analysis and recommendations that feed into the political process; and by suggesting broad goals, objectives and policy options for discussion at intergovernmental forums. None the less, most of this information is not available in a format for immediate and direct use by decision makers at national and local levels....

69. In general, decision makers may be understood to need information that is succinct, that is representative, and that allows some play for alternative scenarios and customizing for national (or local) conditions. Indicators should assist in this process. There needs to be up-to-date information on the current situation, georeferencing, and some way of anticipating what the future may hold through modelling, projections and scenarios, leading to policy options and their implications. Textual reporting remains important as providing "standalone" analyses and as helping to confer meaning and context on quantitative data.

71. Information is disseminated through print, diskette, and electronic networks. The objective may be to move towards electronic "on-line" services for rapid access, capability to handle large amounts of data and relative low cost for service.... Eventually, not only will electronic communication provide two-way communication and downloading of data, but it may also, through electronic seminars and workshops, put groups of experts, advisers and trainers at the disposal of decision makers in a manner that saves both time and money.

73. The reality for now, however, is that the number of countries as well as of relevant departments, institutes and organizations within countries that have the human, the technological or the telecommunications capacity to take advantage of the new electronic media are insufficient....

74. A large number of organizations are involved in the collection and compilation of environment and related information and statistics in countries. Preparation of an inventory of who is doing what on a regular basis would help to avoid duplication of activities and facilitate the establishment of electronic networking, at both national and international levels....

75. Discussions concerning dissemination of information tend to focus on the sender. However, unless the user has the capacity to receive the information, to interpret it, and to incorporate it into the decision-making process, the amount and quality of information provided are irrelevant. Capacity-building programmes therefore need to emphasize support for a local brokering capability and to assist decision makers to make better use of the information available. Capacity-building must also include training for the overall handling of technical data, for the use of information technologies, for the assessment of needs as well as of information and impact, for the collection and monitoring of data, and for the development and use of methodologies. Capacity-building must be directed not only towards human resource development but also towards institutional strengthening, through the provision of information technologies and access to the relevant networks.

76. A major thrust is also needed to ensure that updated information is available in university and other institutional libraries as well as public libraries by the installation of information technology. Such a programme would have important long-term consequences for the training of future decision makers, as well as for the in-service training of present ones....

Standards and methods for handling information

78. Countries, the United Nations system collectively, and a number of international non-governmental organizations have a wealth of information, but it is largely distributed on a sectoral basis to a specialized constituency. Its value for sustainable development could be greatly increased by cross- linking the data through interdisciplinary analysis, for example, by relating epidemiological data on health conditions with environmental data on pollution problems in the same area. This would require agreement on standard methods and definitions so that such comparisons could be made effectively. The move of several national Governments to establish inter-agency working groups and councils, as well as to develop national indicators for sustainable development, is greatly assisting in the integration of the analysis of relevant data.

79. Within the United Nations system the issue of interlinkage and cross- sectoral standardization is being addressed by Earthwatch. As the Earthwatch System develops, other, non-United Nations system organizations will also be invited to participate.

80. The access to information by decision makers is also influenced by the availability of brokers that assist in the analysis of data and repackaging of information in appropriate formats....

81. ...country-level offices, workshops, experts or consultants [are used] in this capacity. Some... repackage information... into popularized editions of data.... Since this is an issue at the heart of interpreting complex data into policy options, more attention should be devoted to the using of brokers and possibly to the coordinating of brokered information at the national and regional levels.

Development of documentation about information

84. An organization within each country should be responsible for coordinating meta-information on all programme areas of Agenda 21 at the national level. This organization may vary from country to country; it will preferably be a national unit, although a United Nations system organization, such as UNDP, may serve as the focal point in the initial, capacity-building stages. In so far as a considerable amount of regional information activity is already taking place, such as through regional GRID-compatible centres, the Regional Seas Programmes of UNEP, the regional commissions and other regional organizations, support for regional level organization should be strengthened.

Establishment and strengthening of electronic networking capabilities

85. By creating mechanisms to search for and collect just the information that is required from many data repositories, electronic networks can eliminate the need to gather all data into one place. This requires what is now called meta-data, that is information as to who holds what kinds of data, where those kinds of data are to be found, and how to access them. The explosion of new electronic information technologies and their spread around the world are rapidly making possible new and more effective approaches to providing information for decision-making....

86. [There is] a very large and diverse set of networks on overlapping topics. Identifying and understanding the purpose of each of these networks are a daunting task for international organizations, but the problem is likely to be more complex at the national level....

91. In setting up electronic networks of information, efforts should be made to provide the financial and technical support, where needed, to enrol all interested low income countries. This modest expenditure could dramatically expand the information base as well as have a major development impact.

Making use of commercial information sources

92. For information to be available for decision-making, there are some barriers to the necessary flow of information that must be overcome. There is an increasing problem with access to information for public purposes, often because of the cost of obtaining it. Non-governmental organizations, and even some government departments, are trying to find ways to cover their costs, and they see data sales as one option. In some countries, public services are being privatized. Since business users of data can usually pass the costs on to their customers, data charges are often set at what the private sector can afford to pay, thereby pricing public services, including organizations of the United Nations system, out of the market.

94. All projects geared towards sustainable development should contain, parallel to the need to seek innovative approaches to accessing privately held information, funding for information collection, analysis and dissemination. In order to enhance the quality and utility of the data, a marketing strategy would need to be adopted by the relevant agencies.


2/ Dr. Albert Adriaanse, Environmental Policy Performance Indicators: A Study on the Development of Indicators for Environmental Policy in the Netherlands (The Hague, SDU Publishers, April 1993), pp. 9-11. 

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