3 Extending the basic scenario: many institutions and many computers

3.1 The internet and other computer-related issues

Rapid development of the internet, and particularly the World Wide Web (WWW), have radically changed information management for forest resource assessments in two major areas: (1) distributed information management, and (2) responding to remote requests (in the form of searches) for information. Familiarity with web browsers and web search engines such as Google is commonplace, and web-based information (and computer-based information in general) is well accepted, although acceptance varies with culture. Such search engines give results based on combinations of words in existing web pages, but when information is contained within databases, a more complex approach is required (Richards and Reynolds 1999). Searches for geospatial data add further complexity.

3.1.1 Distributed systems and interoperability

Data and information sharing is greatly facilitated through a common set of definitions and schema for common coding (FAO 2001b), including use of standards and metadata as described in 2.1.4, including the Z39.50 Information Retrieval standard. Success is based on concepts of Interoperability: ¿the ability of a system or a product to work with other systems or products without special effort on the part of the customer.¿ Subdivisions include: Technical Interoperability; Semantic Interoperability; Political/ Human Interoperability; Inter-community Interoperability; Legal Interoperability; International Interoperability (Miller 2000): ¿to be interoperable, one should actively be engaged in the ongoing process of ensuring that the systems, procedures and culture of an organisation are managed in such a way as to maximise opportunities for exchange and re-use of information, whether internally or externally.¿ Interoperability of web mapping services is described by CGDI (2001a). A Web Map Service (WMS) is an Internet-based service, which is designed to display maps and/or images possessing a geographic component and whose raw spatial data files reside on a server or workstation. Portals, such as the Canadian GeoConnections Discovery Portal, can provide a single access point to distributed information and resources.

3.1.2 Data registration

In many respects, data registration is the converse of search: here information is being uploaded to an information system rather than downloaded. Data registration is generally a two-step process: first register the organization then register data products and services (CGDI 2001a). Unregistered users can generally freely browse information contained in such databases but may not submit new information. Once the organization is registered, information can be submitted. Downloadable metadata templates or other software tools facilitate submission of information. One reason for registering data at source is to take advantage of what is known by each supplier concerning his own data and about local conditions, as well as to ensure continued and timely updating (Swedish National Road Administration 2003). The IUFRO GFIS system is an example of an open system to which information providers, using GFIS standards for cataloguing information, may contribute content. To assist that process, a GFIS ¿collection policy¿ defines subject coverage, target audience, types of resources to be included, submission procedure, quality assessment, metadata standards and maintenance arrangements (Päivinen et al. 2000), indicating that data registration is only part of a process that includes computer, human and institutional components. Data ownership and security (FAO 1999b) must be addressed in this process, and are often key factors in institutional agreements.

3.1.3 Institutional and infrastructure issues

Coordination of data collection and exchange among national institutions, constituent states, and donor agencies is a major weakness in most countries, and terms and conditions of funding agencies may be a major constraint. Officials may be reluctant to pass on information (Sithole 2002), and there is lack of enforcement of penalties against companies that do not send (or delay sending) required data (EC/FAO Partnership Programme 2000). More than one ministry often supervises forest information collection activities. Good cooperation makes these activities possible, but may be hindered by a lack of formal regulations, particularly concerning reporting for international assessments (Michalek 2002). Institutional change may be required to achieve interoperability (Miller 2000), and completely new institutions (analysis units) may be required to properly provide required forestry information (Janz and Persson 2002). Supply of information may involve framework agreements and contracts (Swedish National Road Administration 2003), policies (Global Spatial Data Infrastructure) or Memoranda of Understanding (IUFRO 2002). Issues of participation may also require institutional or infrastructure changes, with significant impact on the information to be managed as well as on reporting requirements (see 2.4): ¿The availability of high quality information and knowledge is a key to effective participation and needs to be made available in a transparent manner to the broad range of actors involved in national forest programmes processes. Mechanisms for this are still often lacking¿ (UN 2002).