20. Dr V P Sharma of the National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad, made a short presentation entitled "Cyber Extension: Indian Initiatives for The Extension Approach in The New Millennium". Access to information and improved communication is a crucial requirement for sustainable agricultural development. He observed that modern communication technologies - when applied to conditions in rural areas - can help to improve communication, increase active participation and further the dissemination of information and sharing of knowledge and skills. He believes that "Cyber Extension" will be the major form of technology dissemination in the near future, allowing for the fact that the rural population still has difficulty in accessing crucial information in order to make timely decisions. Dr Sharma stressed that it is essential that information supply is demand-led rather than supply-driven.
21. Dr Sharma reiterated that the challenge is not only to improve the accessibility of communication technology to the rural population but also to improve its relevance to local development. The various national organizations in India have a very important role to play in packaging information on agricultural extension and rural development policies, schemes, programmes and working mechanisms at the grass-root level and hosting the same on their websites. He proposed that it is incumbent on the entire community involved in working with rural communities, including administrators, NGOs, trainers and scientists, to provide information access as widely as possible in the rural areas in order to "to reach the unreached".
22. The Secretariat then presented the key elements of the paper COAIM 1/2. The Consultation welcomed the analysis of issues and the general approach taken in the paper, and concurred that FAO's core area of expertise was in the gathering and dissemination of information content, rather than in the area of information technology. The Consultation stressed the importance of the fact that access to knowledge and information is critical for sustainable development, and for those components that are relevant to FAO: namely, agricultural productivity, food security, and sustainable development. It was acknowledged that the adoption of quality standards was of paramount importance in facilitating access to information. Some delegations pressed for more effective availability of FAO's experience and information management tools at the local level.
23. Many delegations emphasized the need for the full and fair implementation of the language policy of FAO, following on from the interventions made after the presentation of WAICENT; in particular, in the area of greater accessibility of WAICENT content in Arabic and Chinese. The Secretariat explained that the appropriate tools to ensure full implementation of this policy were still under development, but it was hoped that these tools would eventually reduce the need for extensive human intervention in full-text translations. The delegates stressed that improved language coverage is linked to the wider issue of the quality of access to information in WAICENT by Members.
24. The Consultation recognized the importance of the proposed decentralization of the WAICENT programme, particularly in the context of greater access to information at a variety of levels in and between Member Nations. The potential establishment of regional and sub-regional mirror sites for WAICENT was also regarded as a positive move. The Consultation agreed to place a high priority on improving access to agricultural information through WAICENT with Members, and other stakeholders, taking full advantage of the opportunities provided by the new generation of information and communication technologies.
25. Some delegations called upon the Organization to promote appropriate use of modern information and communication technologies in the context of those rural communities in many developing countries which lack adequate, or even basic, infrastructures. One delegation stressed that FAO's own information resources would only satisfy a small part of the requirement at the local level, and that national organizations themselves must be responsible for locally-derived content, and the eventual modification of internationally-sourced material to suit the needs of users. Some delegations suggested that it would be instrumental for FAO to work at the national level in support of development for information exchange through local channels, given the scale of the potential demand for collaboration. The Secretariat clarified that the WAICENT Outreach Programme would be a key platform for working with national programmes. In addition, it was felt that the impact on poverty and food security would be enhanced by the effort to strengthen and improve knowledge exchange systems at the grassroots level. Some delegates emphasized the role of programmes such as the Special Programme on Food Security (SPFS) in facilitating the promulgation of WAICENT's experience. The Consultation recommended that special attention be given to the needs of small producers in the access to information. The decentralization of information systems constitutes one of the means of reaching this objective.
26. The Consultation recommended that FAO play a key role in co-ordinating agencies active in the agricultural sector in order to promote effective collaboration in capacity-building efforts with member countries, facilitate the advance towards the goal of sustainable agriculture, and ensure economically viable access to information and communication technologies. The Consultation called on the Organization to collect and document evidence of the successful introduction of new approaches and implementation of information and knowledge systems based on modern technologies. Evidence of the impact of information would have a significant bearing on the potential collaboration provided by Members.
27. The Consultation emphasized that future consultations should take on the role of facilitating an FAO-wide programme covering key aspects of access to information and knowledge, thus reflecting the inherent cross-sectoral nature of information management, with the principal task of encouraging and supporting the efforts of Member Nations, NGOs and other organizations.
28. The Secretariat introduced the representative of the European Centre for Development Policy Management, Mr P Ballantyne, who presented the key elements of Paper COAIM 1/3. The Consultation congratulated the Secretariat on a concise and informative Paper, and recognized that international co-ordination and co-operation are key elements in the improvement of effectiveness in capacity building for information access. The Consultation noted with interest the excellent presentation made by Mr Woldemeskel, Head of MIS and Database Service in the Ministry of Agriculture of Ethiopia, on the development of a national agricultural information system in the Federal Republic of Ethiopia. The Consultation recommended that FAO promote co-ordination between development assistance agencies in the international community working in capacity building in the area of information management in agriculture, thereby avoiding duplication, bringing together complementary skills and sharing experiences.
29. Some delegations also recognized the need for co-ordination of the many initiatives in the field of agricultural information and knowledge exchange based on new technologies, and suggested that FAO establish a mechanism for co-ordination with key international agencies, reporting back to Member Nations on relevant issues, so that roles and responsibilities are made clearer, synergies are achieved and duplication is minimized.
30. Several delegations emphasized the lack of skills and infrastructure in their governmental organizations, and highlighted the need for inputting resources in the form of financial assistance, technology and skilled manpower. Other delegations emphasized that allowance must be made for the fact that the speed of development varies between and within countries when planning information systems development. The Consultation agreed that decisions on the design and implementation of systems needed to be deliberated at the national or local level, taking into full account the needs of users including those at the grassroots level where appropriate. Some delegations suggested that in the area of capacity building, FAO should be able play the supporting role by acting as an intermediary, particularly between public and private sectors and through the provision of norms and standards.
31. Some delegations requested that the FAO Council examine the possibility of defining a sub-programme of capacity building and training in information generation and management. Some observer organizations suggested that FAO and other international agencies focus their attention primarily on influencing decision-makers, and only become involved directly in technical training in computing or information management skills when absolutely necessary.
32. Several delegations noted that the policy of decentralization of WAICENT would also be appropriate in the case of FAO's activities in capacity building of all stakeholders, including farmers, although it was recognized that WAICENT's resources in the field programme were limited. The Czech Republic highlighted the importance of the role of FAO National Committees for information management at the national level in Central and Eastern Europe.
33. Several delegations stressed that FAO should respond to clearly articulated needs, and that it is essential that the information supply is "demand-led" and not "supply driven". The mistakes of "supply-driven" research, with the production of unwanted outputs, should not be repeated. The Consultation recognized the importance of Impact Assessment (IA) in agricultural information management, and noted the outcomes of the workshop on this subject jointly organized by FAO and CTA, and recommended that these and other organizations work together to develop and promote the use of easy-to-apply IA frameworks and methodologies.
34. The Secretariat underlined that WAICENT's existing strategy in the medium term is focusing on three types of intervention: (i) strengthening capacities at the regional level, (ii) assessment of information needs as a continuing process, and (iii) working at the national level mainly through field projects and priority programmes such as the Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems (FIVIMS) and the Special Programme on Food Security (SPFS). In order to implement this strategy, WAICENT is identifying key partners in the governmental, non-governmental and private sectors, and is also developing tools and applications to provide to Members that will maximize the impact of the experience that it has gathered. The Secretariat explained that the longer term strategy will focus on the normative role involving the continuing improvement and development of standards and procedures.
35. Finally, the Consultation highlighted the importance of international co-operation in strengthening capacities in the generation of information, as was expressed in the Paragraphs 24 and 25 of Document COAIM 1/4. In other respects, horizontal co-operation links should be promoted between Member Nations for the development of information systems.
36. The Secretariat presented the key elements of Paper COAIM 1 / 4. The paper was welcomed by the Consultation, which recognized the crucial importance of standards for addressing some of the key problems affecting access to agricultural information and data exchange on the Internet. This includes the implementation of international agreements on content management, classification schemes and agreed vocabularies.
37. Several Delegations reported on the numerous national and international initiatives in the area of standards in agricultural information. The Consultation recommended that FAO assume a leading role as a clearing-house for international agreed information management standards in the agricultural sector. The Consultation recommended that FAO, in collaboration with other stakeholders in the agricultural sector, co-ordinate and facilitate the promotion and adoption of such standards with Member Nations.
38. The Consultation noted with interest the proposals to adopt Standard Generalized Mark-up Language (SGML) and Extensible Mark-up Language (XML) as standards for document management, and many delegations were favourable to their adoption as standards. As a controlled vocabulary, AGROVOC was recognized as a very valuable tool for better information management and some delegations supported the adoption of AGROVOC as a standard. Given the importance of the multilingual approach and since it was agreed that FAO has a comparative advantage in this regard, the Consultation recommended that FAO maintain and develop AGROVOC further. Other Member Nations expressed the desire to see FAO providing a neutral forum, offering a framework of thesaurus, presenting the pros and cons of all available thesauri instead of promoting a single thesaurus. Some Delegations also emphasized that FAO should collaborate with other relevant international initiatives, such as the Global Forum on Agricultural Research.
39. The needs for further development of standardization in other domains such as, for example, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), search interface ergonomics and publication of meta-data information, were also recognized by the Consultation.
40. The Japanese Delegation reported that Japan has adopted SGML as a standard for documentation, but that there were few cases where the standard was applied. They expressed their support for the use of the XML standards for documentation and offered to work with other countries in the region on the adoption and use of FAO standards to improve access to agricultural information. They informed the Consultation of their decision to produce the AGROVOC thesaurus in Japanese.
41. Some Intergovernmental Organizations reported on activities they had undertaken to disseminate and improve the use of AGROVOC as the standard controlled vocabulary in agriculture, at the national and regional levels.
42. The Spanish Delegation noted the importance of strengthening FAO's information programme by having it designated as a major programme of the Organization. The delegation noted that this would provide a cross-disciplinary, cross-departmental framework that is required to cover the normative role of WAICENT across all areas of Organization's work, particularly fisheries. This major programme would encompass two sub-programmes: a normative sub-programme and an operational sub-programme. The possible creation of this major programme should be presented and discussed at the FAO Council.
43. Some delegations requested a clear commitment from FAO on the development of an XML-based document processing toolbox by FAO, as a tool to, inter alia, enable AGRIS participating centres to move from the traditional "input data centre" concept to the "resources centre" concept, as part of the global decentralization trend. Many delegations considered that FAO's role should also include technical advice on standards using XML, in order to have a consistent approach that can be used across national programmes.