Imagining an Open United Nations platform

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The ‘Open’ movement is in full force. There are now projects for Open Governments, Open Budgets, Open Charities, and even Open Corporates.

But, as yet, there are no Open International Organisations. No Open IMF, no Open World Bank, no Open World Trade Organization. 

This is a problem because the openness movement is about bringing transparency to the exercise of power. It does not matter where that power is located.

So at the global level – where do you go to find out what’s happening? To find out who’s in charge? There are a lot of actors to consider in global governance: private, public and some halfway between.

To help answer some of the big global questions – on poverty, climate change, economics and finance – the public needs to be able to see what’s going on: we need a new openness in global governance.

International organisations are the most ‘public’ of all global governance actors – not least because the global public pays for them through its national taxes. So it makes sense to start with the biggest, best-known and possibly most legitimate international organisation: the UN. Let’s build an Open United Nations.

What would it look like?

‘Open’ can be construed in different ways, from transparency to organisational culture. Open United Nations would begin by focusing on the former: making UN information more accessible. An OpenUnitedNations.org could display all of the conversations, debates and statements from public meetings across the UN, in one place.

To start with, it would probably look like a version of They Work For You or Open Congress or Mzalendo (etc.) Here’s a mock-up that helped me visualise it:

Mock up of what Open United Nations might look like
Mock up of what Open United Nations might look like – click for full image

What functionality would it have?

Ideally, this platform would publish, for as many fora as possible, going as far back in time as possible:

  • every statement by member state representatives (with permanent links to each and in SEO-friendly fashion)
  • every vote cast by every member state
  • links to webcasts where possible (useful for off-the-cuff remarks not transcribed)
  • a stand-alone page automatically updated with statistics, recent news, wikipedia information and photographs for each forum, venue, member state, individual representative, significant subject, UN official and all other invited speakers, with contact details or at least social media profiles.

Ideally, the platform would also encourage engagement through:

  • alerts when your representative speaks or a keyword is mentioned
  • a comment function (with up-voting) available for every statement (à la Project Syndicate)
  • social media sharing functions for every statement
  • smart discussion forums on certain popular/controversial subjects (à la DebateGraph?)

It would have a strong search function and it would encourage users to tag statements liberally, building up its own folksonomy.

It would be available in as many languages as possible. UN official documents are published in six languages, but the platform could go beyond this by giving users the ability to request a translation and to translate into other languages. Or it could build in Google Translate (etc) to give some idea of what’s going on. The comment thread would ideally remain the same whichever language is viewed (with a translate button for each comment – as in Facebook) in order to avoid 6+ different conversations, and to encourage conversations across languages.

Who would find this useful?

A platform like this would be useful to anyone interested in international affairs. Hopefully that’s a sizeable chunk of the world’s population. The same people that seek to find out what their representative said in their legislature are hopefully also interested in what their (albeit unelected) representative said in international assemblies and councils.

More specifically, this platform would be extremely useful for:

  • journalists (who, given a much easier way of accessing UN information would hopefully be able to cover a lot more of what the UN does, increasing public understanding)
  • staff of member-state missions and foreign ministry staff (particularly for members with smaller diplomatic staff – allowing them to keep abreast of what’s happening at the UN despite lacking the resources of wealthier states)
  • students of international relations or global affairs (likely to find historical records particularly useful)
  • NGOs, civil society actors and activists (again, helping cash-poor activists to more efficiently research, to see what their representatives are saying, and to more easily hold them accountable for what they said)
  • staff of international organisations (who might currently waste hours searching for this kind of information)

What would the effects be?

The platform would make it easier for the public to learn about what goes on at the UN and to engage with their representatives. It might increase the understanding of the limitations and complexity of the UN and drive better discussion about what the ‘UN’ should do. It might even improve the quality of debate in the UN.

It would make international affairs a little bit more accountable. If the public or journalists could easily find out what a person had committed to in a debate, it might be easier to shame that person into meeting their promise.

It would also allow for debates to continue outside of the UN and allow the world’s public to join in a discussion in the online space.

Where could it lead?

The best-known centres of UN debate are the General Assembly, the Security Council and possibly the Human Rights Council. But why stop there? The UN system includes a huge range of organisations, from the International Civil Aviation Organization to the World Tourism Organization. The UN family also includes the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, whose meeting data would be of much interest to journalists, students of global economics, and civil society actors.

Obviously many institutions make use of closed meetings. But there are always at least some annual meetings where they publish the statements and debate. Putting all of that data in one place, identically formatted, would be a remarkable feat, making the world a little bit more open and perhaps a little bit more democratic. It might then lead to demands for more open meetings. These organisations are playing a part in making policies that affect everyone, but they do so with little public oversight. That has to change.

How to build this platform

This is where you come in. Unfortunately, I know very little about building websites. I’m hoping to find a bunch of smart, committed geeky types who can help make this happen. And while I hope some would commit some free time to a promising project like this, it would be nice to think some donors are out there, in embassies, missions and foundations, with the ability to fund a project like this.

There is even pre-existing code to build on, written by Julian Todd (founder of the amazing ScraperWiki) many years ago at undemocracy.org. He was ahead of his time. It would need a refresh and some expansion – but hopefully there’s a lot to go on. Developers will know more about this than me. Julian also wrote an excellent project proposal for Knight funding, which I’ve built upon here.

How do we start? A UN hackathon? A global get together where anyone interested discusses the ideal functionality and design of such a platform? Digital project managers – what are the first steps in this sort of thing? UN staff – can you help advocate internal support for this?

My next move is to try to draw some attention to this post, by emailing and tweeting lots of people who I think might be interested. Hopefully I can report back on some evidence of moral or financial support in the coming months.

Would you use a platform like this? What other functionality should it have? Who might support this idea’s development? Do you have the skills, funding or contacts to help create this? Please comment below!

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5 thoughts on “Imagining an Open United Nations platform”

  1. A good direction but does not address the real elephant in the room – the anachronistic UN Security Council Permanent Five with veto after 67 years. The UNSC has to be abolished and an empowered UN General Assembly, with vote tied to population, take over its functions as it did November 1950. These Five lead the world in military expenditures (SIPRI) and arms sales to rest of world. The leaders, currently Ju Hintao, Hollande, Putin, Cameron and Obama should be The Hague for crimes against humanity. But NGOs look the other way about the dysfunctional UN in its structure. A great advance in 1945 but totally out of sync in 2012..
    Duncan Graham, Vancouver, Canada

  2. Thanks Duncan. I think you’re right – at some point there will have to be more structural governance reform of the organisation. One of the reasons for a lack of demand for change is perhaps a limited public understanding of the UN, something I hope this platform might improve.

  3. Brilliant project. Working on something like that would be my dream. I’ve seen the World Bank has made a start. ref: http://data.worldbank.org/ As hinted already, I think it’s important to do everything possible to ensure there’s no suggestion the information may be beholden to any group or political interest. I can imagine some people imagining this in the case of The World Bank, or for the UN generally unless addressed. How this issue is addressed is another question. Tying into something like http://schema.org/ or similar pre-defined ontology projects may also be a good starting point. You have my attention! I’ve been thinking of this sort of thing for a couple of years and I agree,that the time for this has come.

    1. Thanks Darren, very much appreciate your enthusiasm. And thanks for the Schema link.

      The World Bank does seem to be the most switched on to the Open philosophy – as well as data (which the UN could argue they have always ‘opened’ – just not in a user-friendly way!), the Bank talks about open knowledge (which is different from data) and open solutions.* This is what I get excited about – being open and receptive to the world should enable more creativity and innovation in solving global problems.

      However, the Bank still doesn’t do open governance – another thing I’m passionate about. We have access to all the Bank’s statistics etc, but not to the board members, not to the people who actually guide the Bank’s strategy and delivery. While the selection of Jim Kim as the new WB President was called the most ‘open process’ yet by the G24 group of developing countries** – it’s still essentially closed.

      *http://blogs.worldbank.org/publicsphere/node/5961
      **http://www.worldbankpresident.org/jesse-griffiths/uncategorized/race-over-blog-bows-out-until-next-time

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