Participant Interaction Messaging

Proposal for a low-cost, on-site conference communication medium

Presented to the International Facilitating Committee of the Independent Sectors for UNCED '92 in response to the communication challenges of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992)

Anthony J N Judge
Union of International Associations
40 rue Washington, B-1050 Brussels, Belgium.
Fax: (32 2) 649 32 69

Summary

1. Challenges

The UNCED Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 faces a number of difficulties beyond the purely substantive and political issues. These include:

(a) Ensuring some form of useful communication between the thousands of people gathered for that occasion, especially where the plurality of languages constitutes a real barrier;

(b) Responding as a "safety valve" to the frustration of those who feel their investment in attending is not justified by the opportunities for them to contribute or interact effectively;

(c) Making allowances for unforeseen shifts in the structure and processes of the event which may call for sudden and drastic revisions of the policy of openness (especially in the light of problems which local authorities may choose to define as priority security issues);

(d) Opening possibilities for innovative interaction without calling into question the conventional conference procedures which the United Nations will feel obliged to rely upon;

(e) Providing a "safety net" through which communication can occur when planned structures and processes fail or prove inadequate to the needs of participants;

(f) Providing a means for participants to register their views in a medium which can easily be scanned by delegates without the pressures for face-to-face interaction under virtually impossible circumstances;

(g) Providing a mechanism which can reinforce any self-organizing processes amongst participants, notably those of establishing contact with others with similar concerns;

(h) Providing an alternative medium to the conference newsletter for specific messages concerning practical matters and logistics, including the organization of spontaneous interest groups;

(i) Providing a medium within which insights and information from participants can accumulate as one form of permanent record of an important level of the conference process;

(j) Providing a collection of material which can be scanned and clustered to highlight focal insights, problems and opportunities;

(k) Reducing demands for microphone time, whether during the official or the parallel events.

(l) Providing some form of integrative communication between the sessions at different times, in different physical locations, on different themes, and possibly under different authorities.

2. Proposal

(a) Provide a low-cost messaging system through which participants can register comments, queries, proposals and questions (whether on the conference site(s), from external E-mail, or possibly from hotels or by phoning in);

(b) Number messages consecutively, accumulating them in type-written form (preferably using word-processors) to fill one (or more) sheets of paper (messages may also be uploaded onto E-mail);

(c) Duplicate such sheets (by photocopy or offset) as a succession of numbered "interaction bulletins";

(d) Distribute sheets to participants, as they become available, and possibly for a fee (or cash token purchased earlier);

(e) Ensure translation of the sequence of messages into other conference languages, resulting in a parallel set of bulletins (preferably on a different coloured paper) but with messages numbered in the same sequence;

(f) Endeavour to cut down the turn-around time so that people can see their comments in the circulated bulletins (and the translations) within an hour or so;

(g) Where appropriate, encourage authorities to respond to queries and comments through the same medium;

(h) Provide the possibility for groups to take the initiative in scanning the messages in order to formulate higher order messages (proposals, problems, concerns) which can be incorporated into the message sequence (possibly appropriately coded) or which could form the subject of a separate bulletin series.

3. Logistics

(a) It is important to note that a system of this kind can be implemented with a minimum of resources. If necessary participants can be charged for the bulletins that they receive and/or for any messages that they feed in.

(b) It can be readily handled by a group of individuals, whether from NGOs or selected/appointed in some way, possibly aided by a commercial secretarial service. As a purely administrative task, the process does however have to be handled professionally, with rapid turn-around, for the duration of the meeting;

(c) It is clear that the system becomes more effective if there is access to:

(d) Collection of messages and distribution of bulletins could best be handled through some form of "messenger service". This would be one way of allocating some resources to a suitably trained and motivated team of "street children" (provided with a distinguishing sash). There would be public relations merit in boosting the profile of this team and its activities. Consideration could be given to a token system to avoid the need for cash transactions.

(e) The key to the success of such a system in taking the pressure off conventional conference communication channels lies in the degree to which its use is encouraged by the conference authorities. If it is given reasonable status, it will be considered a reasonable medium through which to communicate and will acquire a useful life of its own. If its value is played down, then the quality of messages will rapidly deterioriate and it will decline into insignificance.

(f) Also of importance are the collection points through which messages can be fed into bulletins, and those from which bulletin sheets can be received. Increasing the number of points increases the accessibility and impact of this alternative medium. With sensitivity and careful planning, messages could even be collected (and bulletins distributed) during sessions.

(h) With appropriate personnel, a messaging service of this kind can be quickly redesigned during the conference in response to opportunities and resources. Overload can be controlled by increasing the charge for messages or for bulletins. Specialized bulletins can be introduced to siphon off large numbers of messages on a particular topic. Underuse can be compensated for reducing charges and reducing the periodicity, especially in the launch phase.

(i) Different aspects of the messaging service lend themselves to selective subsidies (eg translation into particular languages, or production of specialized bulletins).

Complementarities

This service complements:

(a) Conventional conference processes.

(b) Any use of E-mail bulletin boards and computer conferencing (of which it may serve as a hardcopy extension).

(c) Traditional message boards (with post-its, etc)

It has the advantage of being accessible to all. It gives participants something in hand to mark up, mull over at leisure, and respond to. As such it overcomes a psychological barrier for some in scanning message boards or peering at E-mail output.

Precedents

The technique has been used successfully in a number of quite different settings (see Annexes). That which is most relevant to the UNCED conference was the UNEP INFOTERRA Conference in Moscow in 1979 under the responsibility of Ashok Khosla. On that occasion the messaging system was used by government delegates as one means of by-passing the constraints imposed by limited microphone time. Messages were collected during plenary sessions and were translated into English, French, Spanish and Russian before redistribution to delegates.

Refinements

With a minimum of further resources (for a suitable microcomputer with statistical packages, plus people capable of running them creatively), this technique can also be extended to allow the generation of "maps" indicating the network of relationships between key issues under discussion, and between the network of factions active at the conference. This technique was implemented at the international conference of the Society for General Systems Research on "Improving the Human Condition" (London, 1979).

The past decade has made available many computer techniques which would facilitate initiatives along these lines. Such techniques provide a way of configuring the pattern of issues and clarifying the pattern of factions responding to them. It is a unique opportunity to provide a sense of overview in a dynamically complex social environment.

Annexes

Accompanying annexes provide:

(a) A descriptive summary of the technique, with an indication of some of its advantages and factors which need to be borne in mind. The summary is based on the implementation of the technique in different settings.

(b) Samples of bulletins from the UNEP Moscow event.

(c) A descriptive summary of the mapping approach.