UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
THE SMALL ISLANDS INFORMATION NETWORK by Peter Meincke and Catherine Edward Institute of Island StudiesThe province of Prince Edward Island has an area of 5,660 square kilometres and a population of 130,000. It is indeed a "small island" where farming, fishing and tourism are the principal industries. Within the Canadian confederation, it is the smallest of the provinces - a situation that many in the largest provinces do not really understand but tolerate patiently. Many Canadians view the province as a pastoral, picture-perfect, million-acre garden; the people friendly and hospitable, the lobsters and mussels beyond compare and yes, the home of the mythical "Anne" of Green Gables. Yet, for all the visual beauty of the island, it shares the challenges faced by many other small islands: seasonal work and high unemployment, persistent outmigration, over- dependence on transfer payments which erodes self-confidence, ups and downs in agriculture and the fishery and mixed feelings about the benefits of tourism.
In an attempt to encourage a deep knowledge, understanding and expression of Prince Edward Island, the University of Prince Edward Island established the Institute of Island Studies - a research, education and public policy institute - in 1985. With an emphasis on Prince Edward Island, the work of the Institute focuses on the culture, environment and economy of small islands. For the first few years of its existence, the Institute concentrated on the first three components of its mandate which deal in particular with Prince Edward Island.
In the summer of 1989, the Institute of Island Studies began to give serious thought to the fourth component of its mandate: "To undertake comparative studies of Prince Edward Island and other islands". In August 1990, an international consultant on environment, development and natural resource management, James Ramsay, produced a study entitled "International Small Islands Research: The Global Context and Is There a Role for the Institute of Island Studies?" The report identified a significant opportunity for the Institute to provide electronic information services to islands around the globe. Over the years, the Institute has gained a considerable reputation for excellence in research, community development projects, publishing and public education. This reputation combined with the growing international connections that it has established; this places it in an ideal position to undertake a major international program. The groundwork has been laid for the Institute to fulfil the fourth component of its mandate in a manner which could make a significant contribution to the sustainable economic development of islands around the globe.
The strategic importance of information and information technologies to economic development is well-established. The number of networks is growing rapidly and a recent directory lists some 130 electronic mail networks that are mutually accessible and, in effect, cover the globe. The United States has moved rapidly to implement a very wide-band electronic highway connecting not only colleges and universities but also governments, business and industry. Canada has just launched CAnet, the successor to NetNorth, which has gateways to Internet which allows users throughout Canada to communicate interactively with computers around the globe to search databases and obtain files. For example, it is now possible for someone to sit in a farmhouse in rural PEI and search library catalogues in Australia for information on sheep, or, with a few simple commands, do a complete search of ftp sites around the globe for full text files on various subjects and transfer electronically copies of those files he or she wishes to have.
The electronic highways are rapidly being established. The major question now is how to make best use of them. Those who do not take advantage of such strategic technologies will be left far behind in a world which, more and more, depends on ready access to information.
WHY NETWORKS FOR SMALL ISLANDS
The need for electronic information networks specifically designed for small islands has been articulated by a number of authors and organizations including UNESCO's Man and Biosphere program on small islands; INSULA; the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions and the Institute of Island Studies. On the other hand, there are those who argue that people can find information relevant to islands by using the term islands in searches of existing databanks.
The rapidly growing interest in conferences on islands is the most direct evidence that people interested in small islands want to talk to each other and share information relevant to islands. Conferences are one way of organizing such communication and information. If it is valuable to organize conferences around the theme of islands, then surely it is also useful to organize other forms of communication and information on the same basis.
Small islands share many common problems related to agriculture, tourism, energy, out-migration, coastal management and other environmental/land use concerns, etc. Policy makers can benefit from knowing how other small islands have approached these problems. There is a real need for simple, organized access to policies developed by small islands for small islands.
The infrastructure of small islands usually cannot support adequately the wide range of activities and services people want. One of the most obvious shortcomings is the difficulty a small island has in acquiring, storing, and organizing all the information relevant to its needs. A worldwide network would go a long way toward providing the kind of support that islands around the globe will need.
A small islands information network should not restrict its users to information relevant to small islands. It should be a gateway to all information resources; a stepping stone to encourage people on small islands to make use of these new technologies.
The challenge of sustainable economic development is rapidly shifting the grounds for decision-making by governments, business people, educators, and individuals. More than ever, small islands need the most up-to-date information relevant to their specific needs so decisions can be taken that will be most likely to provide a sustainable future. For example, islands have traditionally looked to mainlands for ideas and technologies for economic development. However, many such ideas and technologies have not proven to be appropriate for the needs of islands. Ready access to information about the kinds of technologies that have been particularly successful in encouraging sustainable economic development on some islands could be provided to other islands through the network.
It may well be that such technologies that bring about sustainable development on small islands will be the kinds that can succeed elsewhere. Therefore the network should make it possible for other parts of the world to learn about such success stories on small islands. Organizing communications networks and information databases to meet the needs of small islands does not mean isolating them. In fact, it should make interaction with the rest of the world even more effective.
Information tends to be organized around traditional disciplines: mathematics, chemistry, biology, economics, literature, music, etc. An economist writing on the economic development of Malta would tend to publish the paper in an economics journal. A biologist would publish a study of birds on PEI in the Journal of Ornithology. The interaction among these studies is usually ignored. Organizing such information around islands provides a unique opportunity to see the information in a much more holistic way and gain a better understanding of the interactions among the different disciplines.
The importance of access to information for islands is being recognized through the establishment of a number of regional and/or specialized networks. Examples include the Caribbean Computer-Based Communication Development Project supported by the International Development Research Centre of Canada and PACTOK, which is designed to bring low-cost computer-based communications services to the countries of the South Pacific and make it possible for South Pacific islanders to exchange information with people locally, nationally or around the globe. The Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions of the European Community is setting up a Telematic Network and an Information Centre for Islands.
Jean Didier Hache, Secretary of the Islands Committee of the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions, writes in the "islands" issue of Ekistics about the "urgent need for a better centralization of information, and for increased collaboration between various specialists who have been working on island questions." He proposes for the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions a scientific and technical network linking island universities, research centres and island specialists; and a project whose first task would be to manage a centre gathering all the available data about European islands. He points out clearly the non-availability of data about islands, or the extreme dispersion of the existing sources as a constant hurdle to islands scholars.
A project based in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad called "Caribbean Computer- based Communication Development", will allow the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, in collaboration with the Trinidad and Tobago External Communications Company, to promote and coordinate the utilization of methods of computer-based communication and on-line access to databases for social and economic development. The project will attempt to accelerate the absorption of computer-based communication technology, build self-reliance in the use of these technologies in the region, and promote greater utilization of existing information systems and products.
There are many other efforts under way around the world which clearly demonstrate the increasing demand for information about islands and for collaboration on this "islands" work. As Jean Didier Hache points out, there will need to be a "rallying of minds" before there can be a "rallying of funds" to support the work. Wanting to participate in a practical way, the Institute of Island Studies is currently pursuing funding to establish an electronic information network for small islands around the globe. Called the Small Islands Information Network, its goal is to link people interested in small islands with each other and with information relevant to small islands.
Experience has shown that electronic mail and conferences encourage the development of communities of shared interests with members from around the globe. The fact that there are so many operating successfully throughout the world clearly demonstrates they fill a major need.
People carrying out research on small islands are not all located on islands. Some of the present subscribers to the "Small Islands Information Network List" reside on the mainland, moving to islands to carry out field study. Although their island residency is sporadic, they do act as an imporant resource to small islands that could not otherwise benefit from their expertise, as most small islands do not have a university. People interested in islands have expressed their support and need for the type of service the Institute proposes. They indicate that it is important for them to be in contact with their counterparts around the world, to share information about issues of mutual interest.
SERVICES TO BE PROVIDED
The basic services that the Small Islands Information Network will provide include the following:
ELECTRONIC MAIL: A prototype electronic mail service has been established using the existing LISTSERV program available through the University of New Brunswick. With absolutely no advertising since its inception in the spring of 1991, the "SIIN-L" (Small Islands Information Network List) currently has over 45 subscribers world-wide and it is growing steadily. Some of the key people, internationally, involved in islands work are subscribers to the SIIN-L. This service allows each member of the network to send electronic messages to an individual or to all members. It is this basic service that is proving most effective in linking people with hared interests. You can quickly scan through messages, file those with information you want to keep, reply to those requiring responses, and delete those which are not of interest. A complete record of all mail is maintained.
COMPUTER CONFERENCING: Experience has shown that this type of service does more than any other to develop a community of interest. Each conference provides a shared information space in which members with common interests can interact as actively as they wish. A conference is usually based on a single topic. Members who are interested in that topic join the conference so they can make a statement, respond to a statement made by another member or simply follow the dialogue.
DIRECTORY OF ORGANIZATIONS DOING WORK ON SMALL ISLANDS: A directory has been assembled and is available to the SIIN-L. Ongoing work is required to ensure that the Directory is as current and complete as possible, and that it includes the interests and resources of the organizations cited.
DIRECTORY OF PERSONS INTERESTED IN SMALL ISLANDS: Not everyone who is interested in or who has expertise on small islands will be a member of the network in the next few years, so it is important to provide an up- to-date list of such people. The current directory includes 350 persons, each of whom will be approached as potential subscribers to the network. The directory will be then made available through the SIIN-L.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: An electronic annotated bibliography of some 200 books, articles and reports relevant to small islands has already been created and is being added to daily. It will include non-print materials as well. This material will be available on-line or on a diskette.
NOTICE BOARD: This is an ongoing service to notify the SIIN-L and other lists about relevant conferences, lectures, publications, events, etc.
FULL TEXT PAPERS: Currently, these can be filed on the LISTSERV facility and made available to SIIN-L subscribers. Matters of copyright will be worked out as required.
ISLANDS BASIC DATABASE: This will be created to provide the basic demographic, geographic, meteorological, environmental, cultural, economic and historical data on small islands, easily retrievable through the network. It is intended as the name suggests to be a basic tool for inquiries about islands, with more comprehensive databases following later in the project.
As well the SIIN would act on behalf of persons and organizations around the globe to make their work available through the network.
There will be additional services available during the later stages of the project or after the services are fully funded through user fees and/or special grants.
At that point, all of the above services will be available in expanded and updated form, with better search capabilities. In time, a number of databases will be created. Suggested topics include: Demographics, Economic Policy, Tourism, Business Development on Small Islands, State of the Environment on Small Islands, Energy, Waste Disposal, Appropriate Technology, Politics and Constitutional Arrangements, Transportation, Land Use, Coastal Management, Conservation Strategies and Fisheries. Some databases already exist. An evaluation of these will be undertaken. Some databases have already been offered to the Institute and these will be added to the resource.
In his report, "International Small Islands Research: The Global Context and Is there a Role for the Institute of Island Studies?", James Ramsay points out that, in addition to their intrinsic value, the activities of the small islands program have benefits for the international community of islands.
Worldwide, there are many organizations involved in activities relating to island development, and universities involved in island-related research. Our preliminary investigation indicates there is enthusiastic support, internationally, for some institution to act as a coordinating body for the work being done on islands. Again and again, during the past couple of years, this has been expressed emphatically to representatives of the Institute at conferences, etc. The Institute has been urged to move forward on its proposed small islands information centre by individuals and organizations involved in islands-related endeavour globally. They see this work as a realistic way of dealing with an identified information gap.
Islands share common concerns: isolation, transportation problems, outmigration, mono-crop agriculture, the need to preserve island culture, tourism related issues, island identity in relationship to the mainland and important questions of state - to name but a few. The population base of small islands usually indicates an inability to provide all necessary services. It would not be feasible, for instance, for the tiny island of Sark to provide detention facilities for persons serving long-term sentences. Small islands, then, must depend upon the mainland jurisdiction for assistance, work to gain greater self- sufficiency wherever feasible, or devise cooperative arrangements with other nearby islands to share in the delivery of services. The network would provide access to information that might otherwise be difficult to find - e.g., soil erosion prevention techniques, banking structures, tourism strategies, education systems, or persons with the expertise to assist small islands. Islands can benefit from sharing development models that respond to problems they have in common. Training people in the use of such networks eliminates some of the problems associated with isolation.
One example where a Network couls be used to effectively fill a gap is in the area of post secondary education. Since most small islands do not have a university, providing educational programs through an electronic network would be of tangible long-term benefit to islands.
The University of the World and the Commonwealth of Learning are two organizations that are seeking to provide distance education to the global community. The Institute recognizes an opportunity to assist the UOW and the COL in delivering educational programs through the SIIN. Improving the level of education on small islands could develop new expertise and create new opportunities for employment, increase leadership skills, and reduce outmigration.
Funding for at least the first three years of the project is currently being sought. Invitations to join the network will be sent to the 500 key individuals and organizations already identified, with a request that they pass on the invitation to others. We will immediately purchase the computer hardware and software necessary to provide all the services proposed, except the development of extensive on-line databases.
Services will be provided free of charge for the first two or three years of the project. When it is clear that the services are worth paying for, an appropriate charging mechanism will be established in consultation with the members. Funding for the establishment of specific databases will be sought separately.
During the third year of the project, intensive efforts will be undertaken to increase the number of members to the point where the core services will be self-sustaining.
Our preliminary research suggests that a user registration of 2000 individuals and organizations is conservative. This is based on the average number of users on other local and international networks, and a knowledge of the potential users of the Network. Even before advertising the service, close to 200 users, internationally, have indicated their interest in participating. It will be necessary to provide an excellent service from the outset, if growth is to be encouraged. A key element of the development phase is the assessment and development of the market through educating people and organizations about the benefits of the Network.
Reasonable estimates can be made of the resources that will be required to provide the various services during the development phase and even during the operational phase given the above assumptions about demand. Having considered this, we anticipate a front-end requirement of computer hardware to accommodate 50 simultaneous users. The fact that the Network is a global one gives us flexibility when considering requirements for simultaneous use. Because all time zones will be encompassed in the distribution district, we anticipate a fairly level use of the services during any 24-hour period. The method for distribution of database information will need further assessment. It is possible to distribute database information through diskette and/or CDROM rather than only through on- line access. The greater the number of distribution formats, the more complicated the process; however, we must give special attention to the needs and technological capabilities of the less-developed islands.
At the end of the three-year period, it should be possible for the Network to become self-sustaining under one of the following scenarios: 1) 2000 users paying an annual fee plus connect time charges; 2) 100 developed islands paying a fee, plus support for developing islands through international development agencies; 3) special funding arrangements through international agencies.
Following, here are some examples of how the system might work for you.
1) Researcher Professor M is a Social Scientist at the University of Tasmania. His particular area of study is the impact of remittance incomes on several groups of small islands of the South Pacific. He wishes to compare the situation in the South Pacific with that in the Caribbean, where remittance incomes are even more prevalent than on the islands with which he is familiar. He needs to make contact with his counterpart studying Caribbean islands. Profesor M sends a message to the SIIN-L outlining his work and asks for a response. Within days of sending the message he receives several responses, one from Professor G of York University who works in the defined area - focusing on several Caribbean islands, another from Mr. A, a Network subscriber in the West Indies who worked in the U.S. and sent remittance incomes to his family before returning to a civil service career on the island. The three interested parties decide to engage in an electronic conference to discuss the issue. Professor M and Professor G collaborated on an article for publication in an academic journal.
2) Policy Maker Ms H was appointed Chair of the Land Protection Reform Commission on the Shetland Islands. The impact of major economic development associated with off-shore oil development, and its impact on the limited land base was of great concern to the local government. As a pro-active response to expected land use conflict, a Commission was appointed to study the issue and make recommendations to local government. During the process, Ms H determined it would be beneficial to learn how other small islands deal with land use issues. A co-worker advised her about the SIIN-L and she immediately had herself subscribed. A request was sent to the list for land use regulations and legislation from other island jurisdictions. She received a response from thirty small islands, with five being of particular relevance to the situation on the Shetlands. After further communication she visited three of the islands, meeting with policy makers and government officials. The recommendations her Commission presented to the local government on the Shetlands incorporated many innovative approaches to land use management which she had learned from her island counterparts.
3) Private Sector Ms B, a tourism entrepreneur on Prince Edward Island wished to increase the number of cruise ship stop-overs on the Island. The positive feedback the tourism industry was getting from current activity convinced her there was room for growth in this area. But why do ships stop in one port rather than another? Not sure where she could find such information, Ms B decided to visit the Institute of Island Studies to see if it could help. She had heard about the Institute's international program and about its growing connections with persons involved in islands work, all around the world. An IIS staff member did a search of the Directory of Persons for Ms B. One record matched Ms B's need - Professor N from the University of Florida (a subscriber to the SIIN-L) had done her thesis work on the criteria cruise ship companies employ to determine ports of call. Ms B was a member of PEINet, and so was familiar with the way e-mail works. She was subscribed to the SIIN-L and immediately made contact with Professor N, who was able to advise her on the matter.
4) Small Business Mr. K is a farmer from Prince Edward Island. He was increasingly concerned about the problem of soil erosion. He was aware that, in the past, his own farming practices caused serious loss of topsoil on his property. In the last few years he had been practising farming methods which improved the problem, but only marginally. Many of his farm friends faced a similar dilemma - how to grow enough to make a living while preventing soil degradation. He was a participant in the Federation of Agriculture's database project, through which he had learned about the SIIN-L. He had himself subscribed to the list, in hopes of making contact with farmers on other small islands - persons with whim he could discuss the problem and perhaps learn about solutions employed elsewhere. He sent a message to the list and received an answer from Carib Agro-Industries in Barbados. Mr. K learned that due to rapid deforestation and some rather regrettable cash crop practices, Barbados had a serious soil erosion/degradation problem. In an attempt to respond to a critical need, Carib-Agro Industries took upon itself the task of taking innovative ideas submitted to it by farmers and either prove them to be impractical or to develop them into commercially-available machines which would encourage sustainable farming practices. Mr. K learned about machinery that did strip tillage and integrated cropping. As well, there were compost applicators, cultivators, planters, fertilizer applicators, chippers, small hay balers, diggers, and in- field trailers. This smaller machinery was designed to operate in smaller fields, allowing the replanting of hedgerows. It is much less expensive than conventional machinery and easy to maintain. Since manufacturing and shipping costs are high, Carib Agro encourages overseas farmers to have the equipment made locally under licence. Carib Agro's policy is to encourage such arrangements, including offering advice and assistance to adapt the machines to local circumstances. Seeing a solution to his farming concerns and an opportunity for entrepreneurial development, Mr. K, together with six other farmers, formed a company, and with some partnership funding assistance set up a PEI Branch of Carib Agro-Industries to manufacture farm machinery. They made some innovations to suit local conditions. They held demonstration projects and offered courses on soil rebuilding. The company grew slowly but steadily and soon began exporting to the rest of Canada and to the US.
5. Developing Island Some farm women on an isolated part the island of St. Kitts-Nevis decided to do something about their inability to provide an adequate diet for their families. they began to produce surplus food to run a market garden operation for some much-needed cash. After working for a time individually on small holdings, they decided that if they pooled their resources and worked together, they would have a better chance of success. They were looking for other models of women's farm cooperatives from which to learn. The local Agricultural Representative was contacted and promised to investigate the matter. Back at the office, the Ag-Rep contacted the Island Resources Foundation on the U.S. Virgin Islands. The IRF's Director, a subscriber to the SIIN-L, sent a message to the list, asking for models of women's self-help agricultural groups. A response from PEI directed him to the PEI group, Farmers Helping Farmers, a grass-roots development organization which has worked with over 300 women's farm groups in East Africa. Farmers Helping Farmers representatives communicated with the Ag-Rep via e-mail and offered to send a selection of material they had prepared on the way the women's groups were organized and how they accomplished their goals. When the St.Kitt's-Nevis groups received the information, they were able to adapt a model to suit their circumstances. The first year they made a small profit from their market garden, enough to buy extra seed for the following year. They are looking forward to making enough profit in the years ahead to create a rotating credit fund to help further their children's education. The project is a source of pride and accomplishment for the women of one small, rural community. They plan to help other women in neighbouring communities undertake similar projects.
In these hypothetical examples, one observes the shared island characteristics of scale and proportion. Common to small islands, these factors impose (or better perhaps, insist) on a way of doing things that responds to those characteristics. When scale and proportion are abandoned in the problem-solving model, islands and islanders suffer bold repercussions. Mainland jurisdictions don't usually need to cope with this island peculiarity and so, for the most part, their models offer limited help. If, by sharing their successes and trials, islands are given a better chance at achieving cultural and economic vibrancy, then this idea of communication will have served well.
The contacts the Institute of Island Studies has made to date regarding the establishment of a small islands information network have been most encouraging. Our struggle to flourish on our own small island gives poignancy to the work. We recognize tangible value in being in communication, in a practical and meaningful way, with other islands.
In closing, here are the words of Prince Edward Island poet, Milton Acorn, which express the shared experience of islanders anywhere - "Since I'm Island-born... nowhere...is there a spot not measured by hands;/no direction I couldn't walk/to the wave-lined edge of home." Elsewhere, Acorn placed his island experience in a wider context:
To be born on an island's to be sure You are native with a habitat. Growing up on one's good training For living in a country, on a planet.
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