University of Earth
Projects Overview (Explanations)
World Problems Project (Explanations)

Method: Document control and problem description

World Problems Project


1. Administration vs. conceptual preoccupations

A fundamental distinction is made between the administrative concern with controlling the flow of documents relating to problems and the conceptual concern with naming such problems (which includes differentiating them from other problems, or merging ill-formed problems with others) and interrelating them.

2. Arbitrary problem numbering

Control is maintained by allocating an arbitrary filing number to each "problem" as it is encountered. This number identifies the problem in the database and identifies the physical file of material on it. In the database one or more problem "names" (incorporating useful descriptors and common names) are associated with that number in the database. The descriptors are immediately indexed so that the numbered problem is accessible through any of the descriptors (or through the categories to which such descriptors have been allocated). Any material subsequently collected on that problem is channelled into individual physical files bearing the corresponding number.

The use of arbitrary numbers as filing points has a number of advantages:

This last point is of considerable importance in an evolving system. As indicated by the sequence of points in Figure 1 (see following note), information accumulates around a filing number which may have a variety of words associated with it as partial, or even tentative, descriptors. When a problem file number is first "opened" as a "new" problem, the information associated with it and the descriptors used may be quite tentative, especially in the case of complex problems. Thus whilst some problems can be clearly labelled with unambiguous descriptors (e.g. malaria, loneliness), others may eventually have a string of synonymous descriptors associated with them. In the most complex cases, requiring a string of descriptors, several variants of such strings, with different combinations of synonyms, may become associated with the file number.

3. Redistribution of physical documents

It should be emphasized that problems treated as "new" may in fact be subsequently merged with other problems or split into distinct problems. The physical documents are then moved into the files corresponding to the numbers of the destination problems. The information in the database is also transferred accordingly.

4. Convergence towards permanent numbers

Over time, especially given that the programme has been maintained since 1972, the majority of problems become clearly established under their fixed numbers. However new problems entering the database may at any time lead to a conceptual re-evaluation of the status of the older problems, although the probability of any major shift becomes increasingly remote. But although the number becomes increasingly permanent, the name (or names) given to the problem may continue to be refined by the process described below.

5. Computer environment

Some details of the computer software used to facilitate and control the editorial research on a network of conceptual entities is given in Section TZ.

6. "Definition"

Problem descriptions are based on the information which accumulates in the physical file bearing the same number as the problem in the database. Editorial work on the descriptions usually takes place after extensive work on the relations between the problems in that domain (see following note). This means that when an editor examines the file and compares the contents with the computer record, it becomes apparent whether items in the physical file need to be moved to other locations because they are more appropriate there, or whether photocopies of certain items need to be made and transferred because they contain information relevant in several places.

The editorial intent is not to provide a final "definition" of the problem but to indicate its "nature" and to clarify the preoccupations of the constituency concerned by the problem. The process resembles the procedures of a prosecutor preparing a brief to present the defendants' case in the manner most likely to ensure prosecution. The actual text may therefore be either very precise, amounting to a definition, or very loose, depending on the kind of problem and the information available. The text may be revised on a number of occasions, possibly as a result of being sent to an international organization in proof form for comment. Paragraphs may be moved into the description from other problems as a result of the processes described above.

7. Editorial intervention

The preparation of a description is very much an editorial process, ideally with minimal intervention by the editors. The intention is to allow the arguments of different constituencies (as "witnesses for the prosecution") to speak for themselves. Where information is available from many sources, this may involve gleaning material from different documents and combining the elements in a suitable manner. The quality of the description thus depends above all on the availability of appropriate texts and the copyright constraints surrounding them. One of the great merits of working with the documents of international organizations is that much of their material is either in the public domain or that they welcome any use of it.

8. Language bias

Material prepared on problems by international organizations has the additional merit that it has already had excessive national and cultural biases removed or at least attenuated. This is of considerable importance because of a major resource constraint, namely the question of language. Although the Union of International Associations receives information in a variety of international languages, its publications are normally in English only. And in the case of the Encyclopedia, non-English material is rarely used in order to avoid translation costs. This inherent bias is partially corrected by the use of international organization material which is designed for publication in several languages and may indeed have been translated into English from one of those languages.

9. Organization of description

In addition to the "Nature" of the problem, other possible headings under which descriptive information may be provided include: "Background", "Incidence", "Claim" and "Counter-claim". "Background" is used when some historical or technical context is required for an understanding of the problem. "Incidence" is used if there is some statistical, geographical or other information indicative of the dimensions of the problem. "Claim" is used to present examples of strong statements from bodies advocating priority attention to the problem, especially when the statements succinctly dramatize the overriding importance of the problem. "Counter-claim" is used for examples of statements from bodies who consider the problem non-existent, totally misrepresented, or who deny its importance as a problem and may even consider the "problem" to be a solution. Both "Claim" and "Counter-claim" differ from the other paragraphs in that they are judgemental and opinionated, rather than factual.

10. Distribution of material between descriptive paragraphs

Whilst the material available on some problems can be clearly distributed amongst the descriptive paragraphs, for others this is not the case. Especially when information is inadequate or of low quality, or when the problem is anyway difficult to articulate, one or other paragraph may be used to carry the available material. In some cases it may seem more appropriate to use the Claim paragraph only, accepting the bias. In other cases, all that may be available is information on the situation in a particular country, which is then given as an example under Incidence. Statistical data indicative of the importance of a problem is often only available for those countries that can allocate resources to the collection of such information and which are motivated to do so. For this reason use is often made of data from the USA or Western European countries on the assumption that this at least indicates what the situation might be like in other countries if the data were available for them.

11. Claims and counter-claims

It is important to stress that the editors are not attempting to present "the objective truth" by making editorial judgements on what is factual and what is not. The editors endeavour to present problems as they are each perceived from the framework within which each is experienced as significant, using whatever "facts" are considered appropriate by bodies working within that framework. This is especially the case with the "Claim" and "Counter-claim" paragraphs. When such information is available, these paragraphs provide a means of reflecting more explicitly the dynamics within the international community between advocates and detractors of particular problem conceptions. The existence of such dynamics is of course implicit in the juxtaposition of problems which may easily be seen to be mutually exclusive.

12. Problems without descriptions: description by relationship

Problems may appear without descriptions for several reasons. The information received may not readily lend itself to the preparation of a description, typically because of the non-problematic or solution-oriented style. Even when adequate information has been received, editorial resources may not justify preparation of a description at this stage. The problem may be considered too specific to warrant a description, as is typical of those allocated to Section PG. The problem may be so general or fundamental that it is not useful to attempt the challenge of producing an adequate description at this time, as is typical with those allocated to Section PA (in the 1991 edition). Such problems may also be effectively "described" by their function in grouping more specific problems within the logical context of relationships.

13. Comprehensiveness of description

It is important to remember that the number of the problem serves as an arbitrary marker denoting its "existence". To this may be attached one or more "names" which give some indication as to the scope of the problem, especially when they are not synonyms. The set of names may imply the presence of other name variants which are not present. But in many cases the set of names will not exhaustively indicate the scope of the problem. The information available for the description may stress only an aspect of the problem and thus be much less comprehensive, at this stage, than the set of names imply. The reverse may also occur in that the description may be somewhat broader than that implied by the names, especially when the description must provide contextual material in order to be meaningful.

14. Quality of information and description

Because of the logistical problems of assembling and editing appropriate material, as well as the lack of adequate information on many of the subtler problems, the quality of descriptions varies. Some entries reflect an understanding of a problem carefully articulated by an international organization. Others are based on information assembled from a variety of sources. Since the editorial bias is towards inclusion of entries in order at least to acknowledge the sensitivity of some constituency, some entries are based on what in intelligence circles is described as "low grade information". Once established in this way, and appropriately indexed, higher quality of information may become available to improve the description.

15. Source citation

Although statements used in building up problem descriptions are, in almost every case, very closely based on existing published documents, no explicit link is established between statement and source documents. This has been avoided for several reasons. Resources only permitted problem statements to be located and did not necessarily permit the location of the best document(s) devoted to that problem. A problem description may be built up from fragments of many documents making source indication impracticable and of limited value. Any principal document used may be more appropriately associated with a broader problem, especially when the information on a specific problem is only a small part of it. The editorial process of selecting and restructuring texts from different sources may unintentionally distort the meaning in the original contexts (particularly when the original statements did not constitute clear descriptions). Non-citation of sources is particularly regrettable in the case of little known documents from international organizations. In this edition, and the last, a major step towards remedying this deficiency has been taken by indicating references to books on the problem, where these could be traced. In some cases such references have been used as a substitute for any further description.

16. International organization citation

It has been the continuing ambition of this programme to include in descriptions specific references to international organizations concerned with a problem. This continues to be beyond the available editorial resources. A principal reason is that many interesting problems are only briefly mentioned in passing in documents of international bodies and it cannot be said that they are actively "concerned" with them. On the other hand, many international organizations claim to be concerned with the more fashionable problems. The remedy for this deficiency up to 1993 has been to group organizations and problems together under some 3,000 subject categories in the companion Volume 3 of the Yearbook of International Organizations.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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