University of Earth

Information Culture

within a strategic reframing of the Union of International Associations (2005)

[reframe index]

Registry function

The UIA’s registry activity derives from a coherent, consistent, evolving information strategy dating back over a century. This page gives a sense of this trajectory in order to demonstrate the strategic logic of its continuing to provide enabling services to the non-profit community and beyond.

Technological innovation

The UIA has always operated at the interface between information, its organization and enabling the global community of associations to which this information is relevant. The UIA has a tradition of rapid response to new information technologies as an early adopter of: in-house computers (1972), word processing (1973), computer typesetting (1974), email (1979), meta-data structure (1984), LAN relational database operation (1985), automatic translation (1994), CD-ROM technology (1995), web technology (1996), hyperlink editing (1997), VRML (1998), inter-institutional data integration (1999), online web data services (2000), sonification (2000), XML (2001), SVG (2002).

In the rapidly evolving period of ISP emergence, the UIA was the founding member 1997 of a cooperative, Agora, based in its own offices from which it provided Internet connectivity to the NGO community in Belgium through a T1 line. Agora was at that time the Belgian node of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). These facilities were absorbed in 1999 into XS4ALL, another community oriented ISP, that itself was absorbed into a corporate ISP that currently provides UIA connectivity and hosting of portions of its site. The online services have however been based in-house since their experimental origin in 1998.

Visualization initiatives

Most recently innovation has focused on enabling web users to generate, reconfigure and print, from its databases, a multitude of network maps or to view/export such networks through third party packages (Decision Explorer, Netmap). Generically these innovations are possible at the UIA because of an in-house capacity to handle a variety of cross-platform and interface situations, and typified most basically by the early challenges of accented characters. In 1986, as an early example, the main UIA registry product received the UK HMSO Printing World Award for the most innovative application of computers to typesetting.

Networking technology

Throughout the 1970s the UIA was a strong advocate to international NGOs of the new concept of organizational networking and its associated challenges [more]. It was a user of Murray Turoff’s experimental Electronic Information Exchange System, funded by NSF, that became operational in 1976 as the great-great-grandmother of all virtual communities and promoted its significance for the community of non-profit organizations.

Throughout the 1970s the UIA was a strong advocate to international NGOs of the new concept of organizational networking and its associated challenges [more]. It was an early user of the experimental EIES email system funded by the National Science Foundation, that became operational in 1976 as the great-great-grandmother of all virtual communities, and promoted its significance for the community of non-profit organizations.

These different threads had led to contact in the 1970s with Douglas Engelbart at the ARPANET centre in Menlo Park (and even an offer to manage the centre). Engelbart was a key source of inspiration at the UIA, as elsewhere, for many concerned with the development of hypertext and associated graphics in support of knowledge navigation. Contact with that community was resumed through a UIA keynote speech to the Electronic Networking Association: Transformative conferencing: re-enchantment of networking through conceptware (San Francisco, 1990).

Information consultation

The UIA was involved in the earliest stages of the UN-based Inter-Agency Group on Indexing and Documentation that resulted in the Macrothesaurus. The UIA’s early expertise in information systems resulted in its involvement as reporter in two successive consultations in the early phases of the development of UN information systems (Acquisition and Organization of International Documentation, 1974; Utilisation of International Documentation, 1980). The UIA provided consulting expertise to UNESCO in 1984 with respect to the development of UNESCO’s in-house country data system, followed by later consultations concerning the feasibility of sharing data with UNESCO.

The original focus on information classification led to UIA involvement in the Committee on Conceptual and Terminological Analysis (COCTA) and the International Society for Knowledge Organization in the 1970s. Association with the early work on computer graphics, resulted in production of a film on Visualization of International Organization (1971). Two decades before the emergence of “knowledge management” as a theme, a study on Knowledge representation in a computer-supported environment (1977) articulated much of the design philosophy of UIA information systems.

Computer enhanced editorial operations

The documentation, editing and research work became dependent on use of in-house computers from the 1970s, intensifying with the development of relational databases in 1985.  Shared access to files has long been a central feature of effective editorial teamwork and procedures to process profiles – whether on a profile-by-profile basis, across profiles, or within a network of profiles. The development of these operations continues in response to new technologies, operating systems and access to the web.

Self-organizing operations

The UIA has developed and maintained intensive use of computer facilities to enhance the capacity of a limited group of people to work together on regular productions tasks with a high capacity for self-organization.

Given the collective dependence on computers, and the task-oriented focus on documentary research, many aspects of the work at the UIA are to a large degree self-organizing rather than conventionally hierarchical. This is consistent with the nonprofit nature of the organization but is somewhat unusual for an organization operating to tight budgets and schedules.

Long-term staff commitment

Documentary work typically calls for a longer-term commitment from staff and collaborators who need to develop familiarity with a multitude of organizations and the facilities through which they may be profiled and researched.

Facilitative communication

The core preoccupation of the UIA is the use of information to facilitate the activities of international bodies and those concerned with the issues to which they respond. This has resulted in early work on knowledge classification and dissemination, modes of international organization, improvement in the quality of meetings and dialogue, and development of computer-enhanced communication facilities.

Cutting edge initiatives

Throughout the 1970's the UIA was a leading advocator of the new concept of "networking" amongst the community of organizations. It has sought by every means to embody that perspective in its registry activity as the basis for building community. It now manages some 500,000 hyperlinks as part of this activity. The challenge is to use these as "scaffolding" to enable the emergence of new kinds and levels of social organization and responsiveness.

With the shift towards a "semantic web", the question is whether the pathways through the network of organizations, problems, stratyegies and meetings can be presented such as to facilitate new approaches to organization. To this end the transition from the "information highway" metaphor into what has been termed in a UIA study as the "songlines of the noosphere", through the global configuration of hypertext pathways as a prerequisite for meaningful collective transformation, or more speculatively the "sacralization of hyperlink geometry". (1998). Software application development is conducted towards this and related ends.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed by Anthony Judge
under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.