Union of Intelligible Associations (Complementary initiatives and historical context)
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Union of Intelligible Associations

Ongoing Work

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

[reframe index]


The Union of International Associations (Brussels, since 1910) maintains inter-related databases on over 56,000 world problems, 40,000 intergovernmental and nongovernmental (NGO) organizations (and their meetings), 33,000 organizational action strategies, as well as on 3,000 human values and 5,000 approaches to human development, as well as integrative concepts, and metaphors of relevance to governance. Items in each database are extensively hyperlinked amongst themselves and to other databases. URLs are provided to over 15,000 Internet resources of international bodies. [access via http://www.uia.org/data.htm]


The prime sources of information are the international networks of governmental and civil society bodies profiled in the organizations database -- notably through the documents they produce, especially on the web. The information is selectively restructured to reflect the insights of constituencies with very different concerns, rather than being reconciled with an imposed conceptual scheme. Special effort is made to reflect both claims and counter-claims with respect to particular problems or strategies in order to capture the dynamics between concerned parties and to facilitate dialogue between different perspectives.

Web, CD-Rom, and Books

The data is currently made available via the Web, on CD-Rom and in reference book form (notably the annual 4-vol. Yearbook of International Organizations, 37th edition; the 3-vol. Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, 4th edition; the International Congress Calendar, 40th edition; the Who's Who in International Organizations, 3rd edition). The Yearbook is now subtitled Guide to Global Civil Society Networks. Data has been maintained in electronic form since 1976.

Multi-lingual challenge

Considerable attention has been given to the multi-lingual challenge and to automatic translation procedures. Emphasis is placed on multi-lingual keyword access from a variety of languages, even when data is only available in English. Organization descriptions have been translated into French, for example, with ACCT support.

Knowledge-building processes

The editorial process whereby the data is collected, maintained and interrelated is in many respects as innovative as the nature of that data -- especially given the logistical and resource constraints in developing quality databases. The work has been done through a multi-lingual team of people sharing files on a local area network since 1984. This now has wide area extensions, together with extensive use of data from the web, and systematic incorporation of off-site hyperlinks. Essentially, however, the knowledge-building process is an extension of the activities of the thousands of organizations from which information is continually received.

Hyperlink editing

A particular conceptual innovation is associated with the emphasis on "hyperlink editing" to increase the coherence and comprehensibility of relationships between organizations, problems, strategies, values, etc. Together the databases currently have in excess of 500,000 hyperlinks. Major research work is currently being done to identify "vicious" and "serendipitous" loops linking problems or strategies -- and, implicitly, the organizations with policy and strategic concerns. This approach is designed to shift the level of perception from isolated entities to complex systems of entities. Such feedback loops offer a more integrative approach to development challenges and policy-making.

Knowledge mapping

A major concern is the development of new ways to comprehend the complexity of the above networks of insights through visual means and sound. A series of experiments has been undertaken to permit user generation of virtual reality structures to represent these complex networks and interlocking loops in a more meaningful visual way. Profiles of problems and strategies on the web offer users access to interactive self-organizing maps of complex networks under user control to provide conceptual scaffolding for more integrative insights. The challenge is to develop more integrative knowledge maps to provide perspective, overview and context through which detail can be explored interactively. Software challenges relating to comprehension and visualization have been identified in a series of papers. Web experiments using auditory cues are also in progress.

Participative knowledge-base development

The data is provided by organizations from around the world. From January 1999, individuals and groups have become active participants in the interactive knowledge building processes associated with the development-oriented databases. The organization of the data allows users to improve the quality of the knowledge bases: feeding in or amending information, to comment in their own terms (positively or negatively) on existing information and linkages, and to offer alternative (integrative) hyperlink access maps to portions of the data. This facility is being integrated with electronic dialogue environments referencing the content.

Meaning vs Information

Information overload is a major concern for the future. Fragmentation of knowledge and lack of meaningful conceptual integration processes are tragic consequences for the development process. The UIA knowledge-bases provide a cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural context in which to explore these challenges and to develop new conceptual tools relevant to more fruitful policy-making. Studies explore the relevance of metaphor to comprehension and governance.

Bridge-building (“gaps”)

Knowledge-building processes are severely challenged by communication bottlenecks, whether of a conceptual or technological nature. The UIA process is concerned with building bridges across the following "gaps": Information providers vs Information users; Specialized vs Interdisciplinary approaches; Technology rich vs Technology poor; Strategy proponents vs opponents; Concerned parties vs Policy makers;  Focus on simplicity vs Focus on complexity.

Challenges and Opportunities

The UIA is an international nonprofit organization, funded primarily through sale of its information products. These are distributed through a major international channels for reference material. It has been very successful in positioning its technological and content development and exploiting the latest low-cost software and hardware.

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