Thursday, 29 March 2007

UNEP, SDI and empowering citizens

Well, today I am UNEP's online expert-for-the-day (see for the mugshot and capsule bio.) and have actually already received a question! A citizen here in Kenya asked

Practically speaking, how can UNEP agencies engage the public in an empowering way? That is to say, from what I have observed, UN agencies act more at the policy / political level, engaging more with governments and other agencies than with the lowly man on the street. This is not particularly effective, since it is the public who at the end of the day make decisions that affect the environment and, directly or indirectly, governments (even non-democratic ones). So what would you suggest to UNEP in order to really engage with the public?"

An expurgated version of my response is given below. Please note that I actually believe most of this stuff. I believe that SDI-EA really is a step towards addressing country-level and regional needs in parallel with the systemic and global requirements of the UN as a whole.

Your question touches on what is obviously a very broad topic, and I trust that you'll understand if my reponse seems a bit blinkered by my technological perspective. Part at least of the answer to your question lies in the area of public participatory GIS (geographic information systems), a global effort involving academe, NGOs and individuals across Asia, Africa and Latin America in particular, looking for better ways to use the riches of information technology to gather and understand the concerns and aspirations of indiviuals and communities, and how best to support and empower their ability to articulate and coomunicate these to governments, donors and others (see for a better decsription).

UNEP's (and other UN agencies') involvement in and promotion of spatial data infrastrcucture development is a step in the right direction, as yet not reaching the mwananchi-in-the-street but plausibly getting there. Take an example from Kenya's recent past - the attempted excision of part of Karura forest by influencial individuals. The 'grab' was thwarted by a group of citizens including Wangari Mathai. At that time is was not feasible for those activists to quickly get hold of satellite images that would provide the before-and-after evidence needed to build their case - they would have had to contact a specialist centre like RCMRD, ICRAF or UNEP, the data would had to be requested, moneys would probably have had to change hands, and weeks later the data would arrive in Kenya by mail, have to be processed by specialists and, finally, the pictures made available to the press or whoever. Of course, by that stage, the damage would have been complete and the protest useless.

These days it's already possible that -anyone- with access to the internet could go to NASA's geoBrain site, select on a map the area around Karura, and in the space of an hour or so have downloaded just the pictures they needed - no impossibly-huge masses of data to move, no need for specialist equipment, software or staff, no paying of bills outside the country, and no waiting for months. The message can be delivered graphically and forcefully in time to be useful. This all is possible because the right technical standards and protocols are agreed and in place - the barriers to acces are (slowly?) coming down. That's what SDI's are all about. Part of UNEP's job is to encourage this process - both within the UN systems and amongst our partners and the Governments - and to continuously create awareness of the opportunities that are opening up.

Yes, of course, Kenya and many other countries are a long way from universal access to the internet. Of course telecommunications are slow, expensive and unreliable. But, still, it only takes for one individual in any advocacy group to be able to use the web, to get be able to get to a cyber cafe, and to -know- that these types of solutions can be used via the internet.

I'm sure there are lots of other UNEP-driven activities that do strive to empower the average citizen, but this is one domain in which I feel qualified to speak.