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World Problems Project (Explanations)

Method: Identification procedure

World Problems Project


The following procedures for identifying problems and locating material were used in parallel, although some of them have been used to a greater extent in building up the database either for the 1976 or for the 1986 edition of the Encyclopedia:

1. Requests to international organizations

Requests for documents on specific problems were sent to selected secretariats amongst the 20,000 international organizations selected from the companion Yearbook of International Organizations. They requested either that specific problems be identified and described within a questionnaire framework, or that the organizations send any documents or other material from which the required information could be obtained. With the questionnaire was sent a preliminary list of criteria by which suitable problems could be identified, with the request that additional or alternative criteria be supplied. Where appropriate a proof of an entry from the previous edition was included for amendment or comment. This mainly served to increase the flow of problem-oriented documents already received from international organizations in connection with other information processing activities of the Union of International Associations (see below). The value of the replies in both cases lay mainly in (a) their identification of new problems for which documentation was either supplied or had to be obtained, or in (b) their identification of problem categories which it was not useful to include.

2. Documents from international organizations

International organizations send a stream of documents to the Union of International Associations to facilitate the production of reference books on their activities. The relevant publications are the 3-volume Yearbook of International Organizations, and the quarterly International Congress Calendar, for both of which supplements are included in the bi-monthly periodical Transnational Associations. This incoming stream and the documents already filed were scanned for problem descriptions.

3. Intergovernmental organizations

The United Nations and its Specialized Agencies produce considerable quantities of material about world problems. Where feasible, the relevant documents and publications were obtained or photocopied, partly as a result of research in the appropriate libraries. A similar approach was used with bodies such as OECD, the Council of Europe and the Commonwealth Secretariat. The main library research work was done at the United Nations Geneva Library where the publications on public access shelves were scanned. Given the nature of the search it was not possible to make effective use of the UNIDOC series. The principal difficulty is that the presence of much valuable problem information is not signalled by the procedural and administrative titles used for many of the documents. And where a problem-oriented descriptor is used, especially for common problems, it is seldom possible to distinguish a document containing mainly substantive information from one containing mainly procedural information.

4. Reference works

Extensive use was made of a wide variety of encyclopedias and standard reference works to locate and build up files on problems. These were important in ensuring comprehensive coverage of ranges of problems that could not have been foreseen otherwise.

5. Periodicals

Other than periodicals received directly from international organizations, only limited use was made of specialized journals. After a number of trials, use of this source did not prove to be cost effective. Extensive use was however made of press cuttings derived from a number of English-language newspapers. These proved very useful in locating new problems, identifying name variants for them, and ensuring that the database reflected current sensitivity to the importance of certain problems, from whatever constituencies they derived.

6. Market survey literature

Reference material on market surveys was used to identify those problems that were considered commercially important because of the products or services that could be provided to alleviate them. This source was especially interesting in that it pointed to seemingly trivial problems (such as "dry skin", "wood rots") to which large amounts of money were allocated. This source is difficult to use effectively since many of the indexed reports can only be obtained at great cost because of the commercial value of the information.

7. Publication catalogues

As part of the effort to increase sensitivity to unforeseen problems, two of the main sources on current English-language publications in print were scanned. These were Books in Print and International Books in Print. The scan was also used as part of the process of identifying books for inclusion in the bibliography. Special requests were also addressed to the principal English-language book publishers for sales catalogues that could be scanned for problem-oriented books.

8. Key resource people

In an effort to increase sensitivity to poorly-documented fundamental problems, a special request was sent to several hundred people recognized for their continuing insights into the crises of the times. The request was for photocopies of any documents that could assist the documentation process, rather than for specially written contributions to the database.

9. Multilateral treaties, resolutions and recommendations

In principle those problems recognized by the international community, for which a collective response is possible, should be reflected in the texts of multilateral treaties, resolutions and recommendations. Some use was made of this material. But despite its potential and the great value of documenting the link between problems and the legal instruments responding to them, systematic work on this source did not prove cost effective. Much more remains to be done. The principal difficulty is that the problem is often heavily disguised by the legal text concerned primarily with the response to it.

Whilst many techniques were used to collect information from a wide variety of sources, it would be totally inappropriate to imply that this procedure is capable of gathering all the "available" relevant information. Neither time, financial resources, nor personnel make this feasible, even if the information is not subject to restricted access or stringent copyright protection. For example, resources are not available for on-line searches of external databases. What is achieved is achieved within quite definite constraints. In a specific instance a book may be available on a problem in a distant library or for a certain price. The cost of obtaining access to this information, which may be the latest and best, may be too great. Qualitatively inferior information may have to be used. This of course corresponds to the real world situation in which few have the resources to operate with the best information. Much may however be accomplished by juxtaposing items of "low grade" information. The art has been to compensate for any inadequacies by presenting information so that users are oriented toward the more appropriate source, even if not precisely to it.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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