1. Introduction

1.1 What is information management?

Information management includes the collection, quality control, archival and long-term accessibility of collected data and associated metadata. It emphasizes the timely and general availability of this information and seeks to ensure its long-term preservation, and can include both source information and derived information. Distinction is made between data, information and knowledge (Richards and Reynolds 1999): Data (plural) are unprocessed facts or observations, which may or may not be meaningful in themselves; Information consists of assemblages of data which, taken together, answers a specific need, and Knowledge is a product of information and human interpretation, and encompasses the context in which observations were made, and their inter-relationship with other activities.

A National Forest Resource Assessment (FRA) has been defined as a national process that collects, manages, makes available and analyses information on forest resources, their management and use, covering an entire country; it also includes analyses, evaluations and scenario development for use in policy processes (Anon. 2002).

1.2 National and international requirements for forest resource assessments

Support to National FRAs is one of the main components of the FAO FRA Programme, and addresses the issue that demand for forest information has never been more complex. New emphasis on changes in socio-economic and protective functions of forests in addition to the productive functions (FAO 1998a) provide challenges to information management, with FRAs now including consideration of topics such as poverty alleviation, nutrition and gender issues. Information provision and reporting requirements of international agreements add additional challenges, with Australia listing 17 international forest-related agreements, forums or statements of relevance (Bureau of Rural Sciences 1998: 110), as well as detailed regional agreements.

1.3 Current status of information management in national FRAs

Countries vary widely in the availability of forest information and in their information management capabilities (FAO 1999a, 2001a; EC/FAO Partnership Programme 2000; Anon. 2002, Saket 2002). Availability is highly correlated with a country¿s level of development and within any given country the various components of the forestry information system are typically at different levels of development. Even when data are available they are often difficult to access and their reliability is often questionable, so data are often ignored and not used in any meaningful way. Different institutions involved are not always aware of each other¿s activities, there is often considerable duplication of effort and in many cases conflicting data are reported for the same items. Different data components often have different coverage and time frames thus requiring special processing, tabulations and adjustments. Visit 'Why still poor knowledge about the forest resources? for more information.

Putting National FRAs into a common framework is difficult, as national level database structures are often incompatible with each other (FAO 2001a: 17), and in the Global FRA process, it was found that information was frequently outdated, partial or subjective, in most cases the precision and accuracy of data being unknown.