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Relationship building is key outcome of digital divide meeting

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Meaningful collaborations may be necessary for taking research information to the developing world, writes Vanessa Spedding

November 2005 saw the second stage of the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS), an international conference that brought together heads of state from dozens of countries and hundreds of other national and international organisations. The aim was to discuss the implications and opportunities of the digital information revolution - and, in particular, how they could help developing and transition countries address their pressing social, environmental and economic issues.

Development experts argue that while the digital divide - the growing gap between those with access to digital information resources and those without - is created by the economic divide, bridging the digital divide first will help accelerate progress towards bridging the economic one as well. And science is also firmly under the development spotlight: 'capacity building' in science and technology is a current favourite to beat the problems faced by the developing world. So what came out of the conference of relevance to information for scientific research?

The three-day-long second phase of the summit was held in Tunis. Its main aims were the consolidation of the principles and recommendations agreed at the first phase, which was held in Geneva in 2003, and the transformation of those into action plans. It was, in effect, a massive international strategy meeting, which, predictably, produced a mountain of officious papers, lengthy documents and grand resolutions.

Surprisingly, the two main Summit documents make scant mention of access to research or scientific information. Out of 40 items in the 'Tunis Commitment' - which lists the main consensus areas of the Summit - only two refer to science. One of them, Item 11, highlights the way in which information and communications technologies (ICTs) are enabling the sharing and expanding of human knowledge, and thereby contributing to further growth in all spheres of human endeavour, including science. The other, Item 29, emphasises the need to 'encourage and foster collaborative development, inter-operative platforms and free and open-source software... for education, science and digital inclusion programmes'.

Of more than 120 recommendations in the 'Tunis Agenda,' which proposes where to go next, there are also only two references to scientific research, the most interesting of which (Item 90) says 'we reaffirm our commitment to providing equitable access to information and knowledge for all ...'. It also cites a list of methods to achieve this, including: 'implementing effective training and education, particularly in ICT science and technology'; 'supporting educational, scientific, and cultural institutions, including libraries'; and 'promoting the development of advanced research networks, at national, regional and international levels, in order to improve collaboration in science, technology and higher education'.

At first glance it would appear that the conference either underplayed the significance of access to research information as a tool for development and economic growth, or wrapped the issues up in generalisations and intangibles. And to some extent that is the case. There were few references to, let alone concrete actions on, initiatives of relevance to scientific research. However, the commitments that came out of the first phase were reaffirmed, including support for open access as a way to empower researchers in the developing world.

There were also some relevant sideline initiatives such as a plan announced by CODATA, the Committee on Data for Science and Technology.

At a pre-conference 'satellite event' entitled 'Past, Present and Future of Research in the Information Society,' CODATA's president, Professor Shuichi Iwata of the Graduate School of Frontier Sciences at the University of Tokyo, announced a new initiative to create the 'Global Information Commons for Science'. He described the project as a 'multi-stakeholder undertaking' with three main aims. The first of these is to improve understanding and awareness of the benefits to society of easier access to scientific data and information, particularly that resulting from publicly-funded research activities. The second is to enable wider adoption of methods for providing such availability and for facilitating the reuse and sharing of such scientific data and information. The third aim is to encourage and coordinate the efforts of all concerned to devise and implement effective means to meet these objectives.

Ultimately, what CODATA wants the Global Information Commons for Science to achieve is a solution to the issue of conflicting property rights requirements relating to scientific data. It will achieve this with new policy guidelines and legal structures that will promote collaboration between public and private sectors. This could have interesting implications not just for those desiring access to that data but also for commercial information providers in the developed world who, should the legal structures come to bear, will need to minimise the environmental and social costs that result from any measures they take to protect rights to their data.

It could be some time before the impacts of this project will be felt, though, as the first steps will be internal tasks such as appointing a board of directors, fund-raising and setting up offices.

Another project presented at the 'Past, Present and Future...' event was the International Scientific Data and Information Forum (SciDIF), planned by the International Council for Science (ICSU). SciDIF will call for all scientific data, including those commercially derived, to be made available for free or minimal cost for research and education purposes worldwide. In other words, this seems to be a specific manifestation of the Global Information Commons for Science. However, the committee that decides how this will happen will do so over three years - so the issues may well have moved on by the time decisions are made.

Even with these proposals, the outcomes of WSIS still come across as a litany of lofty aims, few if any of which look likely to make a difference in the short term nor to affect the operations of providers and users of information in the developed world - whether or not they are already addressing the digital divide.

Meeting together is the important part

That is still not quite all, however. Wesley Shrum, professor of Sociology at Louisiana State University, USA, is the organiser of 'Past, Present and Future of Research in the Information Society'. He told Research Information that, in his opinion, the real value of the Summit was the way in which it brought together people from a diversity of professions and places, providing a unique opportunity for informal communications between many who would otherwise not have met.

'The key thing with WSIS is that it invited other entities beside governments - representatives of civil society, non-governmental organisations and so on - through the front door,' he observed. 'As for the formal outputs, well there couldn't possibly be anything of interest to the practising scientist here, because these events just create documents. The most interesting part of the conference [for me] was not what went on in the main hall but what went on in the side events.'

The primary side event of interest to readers of Research Information was, of course, Shrum's own conference, and the inspiration for this was grounded in his own project of the last five years, the World Science Project. For this, he had secured funding to explore from the sociologist's perspective the effects of internet connectivity on the behaviour of scientists in a number of developing countries, by installing local-area networks at internet nodes and monitoring their effects.

His discoveries were controversial, but not entirely counter-intuitive: they revealed a discord between the pull of international relationships and of local links. Where the cultures clash there is a sometimes irreconcilable mismatch of priorities.

'The academics are not disconnected from their local contacts and they have a different way of operating [from developed world professionals],' he explained, 'so sometimes they want to use the money we supply to do something different...' Not only that; the structure for delivering aid creates its own limitations. 'Connectivity is different from the "usual" projects - AIDS, food security and so on, which create dependency - but it still relies on a network of people,' explained Shrum. 'Part of this network is in the developing world, part is (or is run by people) in the developed world. These people [in the developed world] have an interest in the continuation of that system.'

Side-stepping specifics, Shrum's comments nonetheless conveyed a clear message: using high-specification ICTs to deliver research information to scientists in less developed parts of the world is a hit-and-miss affair, with noble objectives often thwarted by mundane realities - different, more pressing needs for the money; old habits and unwieldy structures for its distribution. The successful spread and take-up of ICTs within a typical research establishment in developing country, suggests Shrum, requires a more imaginative approach.

'For research capacity building to work there needs to be personal involvement, leading ultimately to research collaborations,' he proposed, adding that connectivity is indeed a 'different kind of project,' but that it cannot fulfil its potential unless people work out what they really want to do with it. The answer, he thinks, lies in using it to build relationships.

His closing note mirrored neatly the impressions of WSIS itself, where direct exchanges rather than delivery of overarching strategies offered the meaningful experiences to researchers on the ground.

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