A System Under Development
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In order to make the Consortium's knowledge base and theoretical framework accessible to others, we are developing an information management system which describes and links key ideas, books, articles, and other information resources in a hypertext system available on the World Wide Web. We have tried to reduce the cost, time, and information overload problems so that people will explore alternatives to conventional, seat-of-the-pants approaches to conflict management and resolution.
We knew something much more sophisticated than a traditional, "keyword type" library search system was neededa "smart" system that could be used effectively by people who did not know the field. We wanted a system capable of dealing with both the information overload problem, and common difficulties in obtaining copies of published works. To these ends, we are incorporating the following features into our conflict information management system.
Selection of key articles cannot reliably be done by clever softwareeditors who know the field are essential. Without effective editorial selection, users will be inundated with duplicative or inappropriate information, and are likely to miss key ideas. At this stage, we are relying upon our own editorial capabilities which we have developed through our encyclopedia and intractable book projects, bibliographic search efforts, and other activities. We will soon recruit others from Hewlett centers for additional editorial perspectives. The goal of this editorial process is not to remove ideas from the field's knowledge base, but to craft clear and succinct statements of all of its key ideas.
Editorial selection only specifies works for inclusion in the project's overall knowledge base. What is needed next is a search system capable of identifying the works that address a user's specific needs. While our system does provide conventional keyword search capabilities, it relies primarily on two search systems that are more user-friendly. In the first, an interview format emulates a consultation with a skilled conflict professional. In a sense, this format combines a keyword search with a short primer on the field so that users are aware of the areas in which assistance is available. There will also be a downloadable paper for more thorough user guidance. The second search system integrates the Consortium's knowledge base with its on-line and in-person courses and training seminars. The Consortium is currently developing three on-line courses: one on general conflict management, one on environmental problem solving and dispute resolution, and a third on intractable conflict management with an international perspective. (We have also agreed to develop a module on transformative approaches to conflict that will supplement all of these other courses. This is linked with Baruch Bush and Joe Folger's project on transformative mediation training.) All of these on-line courses provide general frameworks for considering particular conflict problems, and guide users through readings and exercises highlighting key points on relevant issues. Thus, each seminar gives participants an overview of a particular area of conflict resolution, with the knowledge base system providing more detailed information.
Simply identifying works of likely interest to the user is not enough, as people do not have time to go to the library or bookstore to check out every citation. Rather they really need an executive summary of the contents of each resource to help them decide which reading they want to obtain. Ideally, these summaries should include hyper-text links to other sources describing competing approaches and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Also useful would be information about organizations providing training and conflict intervention services using each approach. These services are now under development.
Since many of the documents cited by the guided search system may be difficult to obtain, the Consortium plans a single source "bookstore" service through which all materials could be ordered quickly and economically. This service would link to several sources:
We also recognize that cost can be the biggest obstacle to obtaining information. Thus, the USIP on-line seminar project provides for developing an information scholarship fund. We plan to extend this fund to other areas, and to identify low/no cost sources of key ideas where possible.
We also recognize the need for translation services to assist in the international dissemination of conflict information. Accordingly, USIP materials are being written in relatively simple "translatable" English for those with limited English language skills. The development of multiple language versions is an important, longer-range priority.
The knowledge base is not a stock of ideas which emerges from academia and is then disseminated throughout the world. It grows, rather, from an interactive process in which practitioners are continually trying, evaluating, and revising the ways in which they approach conflict. We are thus building a feedback loop into our Internet-based information management system. We will actively solicit comments and ideas from system users through questionnaires and case study descriptions, which will be automatically added to a user information component of the system.
In conjunction with these activities, we have established a homepage with links to the other Hewlett centers that have posted material on the Internet. This should serve to cross-link many theory-building activities.
We currently have the funding for an initial version of the environmental problem-solving component of the system. Some information is now available, and the finished system should be up and running in Spring 1997. The first online course (on general conflict management) is also now complete and should be available by first of the year. It will feature a great deal of integration with other system resources. The USIP distance learning program will contain a more extensive version of the guided search system tailored to intractable conflict in the international sphere. We expect to phase it in over the next year with initial operation scheduled for late Fall 1997. We will be seeking funds to phase in distance learning modules on intractable domestic conflicts over abortion, homosexual rights, race and gender relations, and school reform, in 1997.
While current funding will cover construction of the initial system, we plan to seek funds to expand and improve it. Future goals include: a more diverse editorial board, more and better executive summaries, a more accurate search system, evaluating the degree to which the system meets user needs, advertising the availability of the system, online exercises, links to professional resources, increasing the availability of online publications, expansion of user scholarships, and development of foreign language materials.