On the Dot

Tim Foresman presents ‘UNEP Dot Net’: a new look at our world

Dot coms may be experiencing the roller coaster forces of the financial markets but UNEP.Net is receiving greatly deserved accolades and anticipating a rosy future for putting into practice what the world’s leading Internet developers have been discussing for the past few years. What UNEP.Net has begun implementing, since its launch in February at the 21st session of the Governing Council in Nairobi, is the ability functionally to interoperate offices and databases within UNEP and with outside collaborating organizations.

What does ‘functionally to interoperate’ mean? Imagine that you have a cluster of meteorological stations with rainfall and temperature data for West Africa in a World Meteorological Organization database in Ghana. And you have mosquito larvae sampling data in a database at a centre of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome. Then the World Health Organization maintains a malaria statistics file in Geneva for 20,000 villages for West Africa, while UNEP provides a vegetation and topographic set of maps located in the Nairobi office. These disparate databases can be harnessed for study from anywhere on the planet, using the correct search engines and collaborating web servers, to enable an individual to conceive of a question like, ‘will the weather patterns experienced over the past three weeks lead to an increase in malaria outbreaks, and if so what specific microclimates would be best served by either aerial spraying or hut spraying in which villages?’

The technology that UNEP.Net is applying to these types of questions, and science queries, is based not only on the ability to locate and identify the existence of data and information needed to help decision-making processes, but on the ability to interoperate with the data automatically in order to achieve data integration processes required to analyse and report on these important environmental and health issues. In other words, anyone can conduct scientific studies and environmental impact assessments from their desktop using other people’s data.

UNEP.Net is the current culmination of technological advances from such fields as web server interfaces, Internet map servers and geo-spatial database management. These advances in web architecture and database interoperability developed from international efforts, such as the Web Mapping Testbed of the Open GIS Consortium in combination with the Digital Earth Initiative, and the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure activities. Many agencies, such as the World Bank, FAO, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, the World Resources Institute, the National Geographic Society and the Environmental Systems Research Institute, have joined the UNEP initiative and are voluntarily cooperating on standards, thereby making the interlinkages and interoperability facilities over the Internet a reality.

People can access these tools and data through UNEP.Net or other participating web portals in other agencies. The voluntary adherence to the international standards includes special coding for web servers, documentation protocols for database listings and catalogue listings for all information holdings.

Setting standards
What does this provide for the average government worker or interested citizen? UNEP.Net has established the trend for standards and interoperability that will greatly enhance the worth of the Internet for day-to-day and complex information query and reporting tasks. There has been an exponential increase in the availability of scientifically credible data, maps and expert information that can now be easily accessed and applied to any user’s specific questions ranging from flood impacts on Mozambique to the risk of glacial lake flooding in Nepal from global warming, and from locating critical habitat for pigmy elephants to the effectiveness of forest protection in national parks. We are witnessing the first major technological leap since the creation of web pages on the Internet in the early 1990s. UNEP.Net represents an environmental scientist’s tool kit at the fingertips of anyone with access to the Internet – for free

Tim Foresman is Director of Environmental Information, Assessment and Early Warning, UNEP.

PHOTOGRAPH: Mark Edwards/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Driving change | Clearing the bottlenecks | Commuting sustainably (Singapore) | Transported to the future (Curitiba, Brazil) | Bucking the trend (Freiburg, Germany) | Message from the UN Secretary-General | Message from Cuba | Message from Turin | Competition | Breaking free | Calling for change | Reaching the unreached | Greening the screen | Taking the lead | Wanted: more good reporters | On the dot | The city century

Complementary articles in other issues:
Le Huy Ngo: Being prepared (Disasters) 2001
Terrell J. Minger and Meredith Miller: From hydrocarbons to bits and bytes (Looking Forward) 1999