Discussing ideas of an Open UN – one month on

About a month ago I posted a proposal for an Open United Nations web platform. This is the idea of making global governance – the discourse, debates and decision-making at the UN and beyond – more transparent.

I thought it might be useful (to me, at least) to blog about what it’s like to try to start something like this despite having no idea what you’re doing. Here’s post number one.

The idea received good feedback from friends and acquaintances. Some even offered (with only the lightest of nudges) to translate the first post into French for me (merci, Clément Bresson et Pauline Marcou). Interestingly, several French readers got the idea straight away: this is about opening governance of international affairs, not about providing more data on what the UN/WB/IMF delivers.

Other readers were helpful in providing advice on the start-up side, such as how you go about fundraising. I hadn’t considered, for example, that someone might actually give grants for thinking and planning, as opposed to actually doing. So that’s what I’ve been hunting for recently, just to see if I can get a bit of income in order to focus on this, rather than job-hunting at the same time.

As to the actual substantive nature of the platform, however, there were relatively few comments. I was curious as to whether people might have their own goals that they could use an Open UN platform for, but aside from several ‘that’s an interesting idea’ comments, none said ‘yes, this is something I would use’. Either I’ve failed to find these people, or they don’t exist.

There are two ways to think about that: either there’s no demand for this product, or ‘if you build it they will come’. In regard to the former – does this reflect a lack of interest in global affairs compared with national affairs? Or just a general recognition that the UN isn’t that powerful anyway?

Some evidence of a general slump in interest in the UN can be seen in search trends: Google Insights shows that searches for the UN decrease (relatively) each year – whereas IMF and World Bank remain more stable. I’m not a statistician, so I could be reading this horribly wrongly – perhaps every search term ever is on a downward trend (though not banana).

Searches for UN, IMF, World Bank
Searches for ‘United Nations’, ‘IMF’, ‘World Bank’

As to the latter – the argument that if you build it they will come – this is somewhat stymied by the fact that something similar – undemocracy.com – has existed for many years without taking off. Alternatively, perhaps I have just failed to reach the right people – I’ve been thinking from a Western perspective, when actually, it might be Africa and Asia that are most interested in what’s going on at the UN. Again, Google Insights:

Searches for UN by country
Searches for UN by country

So I’ve been rethinking the whole concept a bit. Chatting with Julian Todd, who built UNdemocracy, it’s clear (I think) that he meant to provide a tool to make it easier to reference UN documents – for journalists or Wikipedia editors. I liked his comparison with a video edit suite: a tool used by professionals for telling stories to the public, rather than for the public to use themselves.

But I think of an Open UN platform as something to boost transparency, public engagement and participation in the UN – that’s my aim. In which case, perhaps a better starting point is to go by issues, because that’s perhaps how the public engage with global governance. People think in issue-terms, not in institution-terms. A really interesting example has been created by the arms control crowd at armstreaty.org. They’ve tried to make each member state’s position very clear – complete with references etc. They call it a ‘treaty negotiation mapping database’. Great stuff.

Screen capture of armstreaty.org's home page
The home page of armstreaty.org

armstreaty.org country page
They break the arms treaty down into issues (e.g. Ammunition) and then provide the position of each state on that issue. In this case, the USA position is that ‘small arms…ammunition will not be included in the scope of the ATT [Arms Trade Treaty]’.
Or, perhaps it would be smarter to start smaller. Rather than focus on trying to scrape together the whole UN in one place (though that remains a valuable long term goal), might it be better start with small pieces that gradually engage and interest people?

One idea could be a very simple ‘Who’s My Representative In…[the UN, the IMF, etc] ‘ website, just to get going. This would be built on a database of national representatives in international organisations. For as many organisations as possible, and pulling in or crowdsourcing short bios, photos and contact details. Then, if people found it useful, it could become a base for something bigger, with more information and engagement tools.

Who knows? Anyway – onwards. I’ll keep sharing the original idea with anyone I think might be interested and I’ll try to think up some alternative approaches too. Thank you for your suggestions and thoughts so far.

Useful discoveries made along the way:

  • mySociety’s book ‘How to build a site like TheyWorkForYou’ is excellent. It aims to help people avoid the mistakes – or rather, benefit from the experience – of mySociety developers. Lots of good advice, and also helped me realise that basically the aim of OpenUnitedNations.org is really just a very thorough database, with a fantastic UX skin on top of it.
  • hunting around the UN website suggests that a lot of the data to populate the ‘ideal’ database does already exist. There are, for example, lists of every member of every diplomatic mission to the UN, which is great for the people side of the database.
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One thought on “Discussing ideas of an Open UN – one month on”

  1. I still don’t buy this idea that the General Assembly is too remote. It’s hard to explain what it does, because it is in fact the gateway portal to everything else in the UN. The plot of every specialist interest passes through it at some point on its journey, so with this one you get everything — and there should be something for everyone.

    Let’s take this recent story about the US Senate rejecting yet another popular treaty yesterday (one that was actually modelled on US legislation):

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-20602953
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/04/senate-rejects-un-treaty-disability

    You can tell that it was a very emotional occasion, with former 89 year old senators hauled into the chamber to watch them screw up this vote.

    ( The utterly inaccessible US Senate transcript is here:
    http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CREC-2012-12-04/pdf/CREC-2012-12-04-pt1-PgS7365-2.pdf#page=7 )

    Now, just over here I happen to have the debate about the treaty, which I could not have found except by chasing up through two resolutions:

    http://www.undemocracy.com/generalassembly_61/meeting_76/

    Once again, quite an emotional debate if you read it, which took place in December 2006. Nobody will have read it. I believe there are a lot of people who will have wanted to have read it, but for the fact that they had not the slightest idea that such a document existed. This is your starting point.

    The Israeli ambassador concluded her speech on the adoption of the convention thus:

    “In our tradition, we have a practice of reciting a blessing of thanksgiving and for future success upon occasions of great accomplishment: Blessed be the one who sustained us and brought us to this joyous occasion.”

    So now we have a supposedly rare exception of the US Senate voting against Israeli international policy. Maybe it is the exception that proves the rule.

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