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Keynote Speech

Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, 3 June 2009, Bonn, Germany

Choi Soon-Hong, PhD, Assistant Secretary-General and Chief Information Technology Officer, The United Nations

Mr. Bettermann, Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies, and gentlemen.

I am very pleased to be invited to this year’s Deutche Welle Global Media Forum on conflict prevention in the multimedia age.

As in society at large, new information technologies and new media solutions have woven themselves into the fabric of what we do from all sides – whether it is social engagement, economic development, humanitarian assistance, or even UN’s peacekeeping mission. As the first ever Chief Information Technology Officer for the United Nations, I am happy to report that the UN has made good progress in not just recognizing but institutionalizing the power of information technology. Never before, information technology has been as visible and well-positioned as a driver for change within this global institution. The challenge for the UN and its stakeholders is now to find a way to harness the power of both traditional and new solutions to better serve, to better inform, and to better protect people, especially in times of crises.

Often times, this means providing the right information at the right time, whether it is during a natural disaster such as the Tsunami in Thailand, the current urgent need to help internally displaced people in Sri Lanka, or the evacuation of people in certain parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) due to a potential of catastrophic volcanic eruption. In any such scenario, having access to timely and reliable information will save lives and allow governments, UN organizations, NGOs, the media, and others to achieve better results.

The reality, however, is that many organizations involved in crises often develop what we call “point solutions”, instead of “integrated solutions”, to manage crisis information. This is of course a product of a long history of organic growth of these organizations and the necessity among many of the organizations operating across multiple countries and regions to respond to varying situations. However, advances in technology and improvements in our ability to communicate with one another have provided the opportunity to collaborate more effectively and, more importantly, to begin developing more integrated approaches to leverage information to prevent, respond to, and recover from crises.

In fact, my office, in collaboration with the ICT4Peace Foundation, is currently leading an initiative with our key stakeholders in the field and at headquarters to formulate such integrated approaches that will produce significant improvements in the overall crisis information management capabilities of the international community. An initial stocktaking exercise of current situations was conducted last year and we have since gathered a group of information management and technology specialists developing the integrated approaches. Toward this end, we will be focusing on four main fronts: (1) information architecture work to define and gather a set of data critically needed during a crisis, (2) technology development initiatives to create interoperable systems and tools, (3) capacity building activities to enhance the international community’s overall human resources and technical capacity to deal with crises, and finally (4) outreach efforts to increase support from a broad spectrum of stakeholders in both public and private sectors for the new approach.

While these “technicalities” may not seem as directly relevant to this audience, the success of such an endeavor will have incredibly far-reaching implications for the UN and other actors in the field. For example, streamlining and standardizing the way we collect and share critical information prior to and during a crisis could lead to more effective decision making and timely delivery of essential services to those in need of help. The availability of more credible, accurate, complete and timely information could also contribute to improving public communications and journalistic reporting. With improved quality of information, fund-raising efforts that depend upon broad public awareness and support could produce better results. Finally, with more complete and accessible data, post conflict event reporting and evaluation could be facts-based and transparent.

Furthermore, incorporating integrated strategies means that citizens, the media, and organizations can both use and “feed-in” important real-time data during crises as well. In fact, we have been working with a non-profit organization some of you may know, Ushahidi, to enhance real-time situation reporting based on crowd-sourcing. You may recall that Ushahidi arose in response to the 2008 post-election crisis in Kenya. Establishing an environment, where innovation such as that of Ushahidi can be leveraged more broadly and easily, is part of the goals of our integrated approaches. Indeed, if you go to the Ushahidi website today, you will find that they have also deployed the tool in response to the 2009 elections in India and the recent H1N1 virus epidemic.

Examples like this one are increasingly frequent as more and more people gain access to the Internet and mobile technologies in remote areas of the world. At the same time, it is also important to note that traditional communications channels, such as sirens and radio, are still very much part of how information is communicated during a crisis in some parts of the world. I want to assure you that our integrated approaches to crisis information management that I have described will attempt to support a range of solutions both high and low-tech, as well as for challenging environment where high network bandwidth is not available.

Finally, I am conscious of the role that the UN can play in uniting disparate actors and solutions across various sectors of society. As such, I am genuinely interested in learning more about new multimedia tools and practices you may be more familiar with. I also welcome your ideas and inputs on our efforts as well.

Indeed, the world of multimedia technology is in transition. It is increasingly obvious that the transition will have major influence on the future of the media’s information creation, delivery and management. In this regard, I would like to congratulate Deutsche Welle to organize this broad-based discussion on this emerging issue.

I am honored to be part of this year’s event. I look forward to seeing fruitful outcomes from this exciting forum.

Thank you very much.