Freesteel Blog » The UN and Microsoft

The UN and Microsoft

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008 at 8:45 pm Written by:

As a result of someone adding the offensive {{tone}} and {{unreferenced}} tags to my important United Nations Document Codes page, I reviewed the information carefully and discovered the UN’s official extremely crappy (and I say that without prejudice) 71 page scanned pamphlet printed in 1994, which is their most recent review of the document coding system. I think my wikipedia page is a worthy contribution.

Then I had a stroll over to the Committee on Information website, which oversees the strategy of the entire Organization, and discovered that every single link from it to an official document was broken.

The documents are there, there’s just a session-based page system which is blocking the links, which is something my scraper has to tunnel through by relaying the randomized cookies back and forwards each time it downloads a document.

I got paranoid to think they’d started blocking my IP address because I’ve been scraping too much of their web-pages. But it hadn’t happened. I discovered the trove of Committee on Information documents are all to be found under the code A/AC.198/YYYY/N, where YYYY=year and N=1-9. I spent the entire day pulling each one down and skimming them for clues.

The only clue I found was a single sentence from 2008 here:

The General Assembly website was revamped for the sixty-second session, making it easier to find documents, resolutions and the work programmes of the respective committees. The new site, available in all six official languages and fully accessible to persons with disabilities, is now more General Assembly-focused. However, access through a session-based page has been retained.

Interestingly, things were different way back in 2001, when it was promised:

Once the above policy decision is implemented and the ODS (Official Document System) infrastructure is proven capable of providing unrestricted access, the United Nations web site could be modified to provide direct hyperlinks to the parliamentary documents on ODS, instead of copying the documents to the United Nations web site, which is the current practice. In this manner, documents seen on the United Nations web site will be available simultaneously in the six official languages.

In addition, administrative instruction ST/AI/2001/5 of 22 August 2001 on United Nations Internet publishing, which promulgates guidelines for the presentation of United Nations materials and documents, conditions of use and disclaimers for reproduction of official documents, would need to be amended to require all content-providing offices to remove any versions that may have been posted and instead provide hyperlinks to the actual document on ODS. This will further ensure the accuracy and consistency of the parliamentary documents on the United Nations web site, in relation to the official version of the documents on ODS.

Now, anyone with any internet nous knows that’s completely the correct thing to do, and that somehow things have gone backwards from a position of enlightenment to a position of ignorance.

I can’t find any direct clues, except that the upgrade from optical discs to hard drives and servers was made to Lotus Notes and Microsoft Internet Information Server while budgets were cut resulting in an unaffordability of upgrading everything to Windows 2000 — but they did have UNICODE, which they seemed particularly excited about. Also, it looked like the search facilities were so bad different parts of the Organization were desperately contacting Google to help sort things out. Google joined the list of registered vendors on 4 December 2002 with the vendor-id 20049. Microsoft has the vendor-id 52.

So there’s evidence of a total internal electronic rot of the Organization by an early penetration by Microsoft, just as there has been of the UK government. The signs are always present: when IT strategies go backwards fast and suddenly all the money gets drained out of the coffers. They must have a very good sales force in there, able to butter up highly skilled diplomats who apparently lack the ability to recognize a facade over a tactical lack of technical competence that results in a predictably desperate vendor lock-in, thus resulting in tens of billions of dollars of personal money going to the owner of the company from all corners of the victimized economy to the detriment of a class of people who can actually program stuff and can’t get work, and an almost insignificant fraction of the pocket cash being recycled into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which then gets lauded in speeches in the General Assembly repeatedly, like it doesn’t matter why the Organisation’s IT strategy is simultaneously going broke. Of course, the guy could have given a discount on his software products (marginal cost: $0.00 — but how would you become a billionaire if you did things like that?), or advised them to go open source. After all, he knows the technical arguments.

In 2007 the Organization recognized the need for a content management system:

The Department has been working closely with the Information Technology Services Division of the Department of Management on the prospect of a web content management system. Such a solution, however, is still long term. In the meantime, a short-term solution, such as the use of open source content management system, is being considered. Such an effort would facilitate institutional branding and easier content management.

Somehow misses the point of open source: that you take it, and its yours forever, not just for the license period. And you can adapt it, and you can bring on board a community of developers who often volunteer their services in return for interesting and worthwhile things to do, of which the United Nations has much to offer.

Do you think the UN will ever find a use for having all their recent parliamentary transcripts in HTML form? Maybe? They could always drop me an email. Or perhaps there’s that pressing engagement with the Microsoft representative in that fancy high-class New York restaurant far away from this boring nitty-gritty of structured HTML code as possible. Who knows? There’s all this talk of supporting this civil society. Maybe it just refers to people who can hold their knife and fork straight.

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