Report of the Organization of American States (OAS)
The Department of Canadian Heritage organized a cultural information systems workshop in the Caribbean region as part of Canada 's contribution to the Work Plan of the OAS Inter-American Commission for Culture (CIC). This was the first of three OAS sub-regional meetings – the next two being planned for Central America by Mexico and South America by Chile in cooperation with the Convenio Andres Bello.
The meeting was attended by representatives from cultural ministries, commissions, institutes and agencies from 12 Caribbean countries: Antigua and Barbuda; Barbados; Belize; Dominica; Grenada; Guyana; Jamaica; Saint Kitts and Nevis; Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; Suriname; Trinidad and Tobago. Other participants included the CARICOM Secretariat, the OAS Department of Education, Culture, Science and Technology, and the Convenio Andres Bello. The National Council for Culture and Arts of Mexico (CONCACULTA) and the Center for Arts and Culture, a non profit cultural observatory from the United States , were invited as presenters. The meeting was chaired by Mr. Vladimir Skok, Director of the Canadian Cultural Observatory. An agenda and list of participants are attached.
Mr. Vel Lewis, National Museum Service and Chairman of National Heritage Trust of Trinidad and Tobago, brought greetings from the Minister of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs.
Ms. Lenore Yaffee Garcia, Director a.i. of the Department of Education, Culture, Science and Technology of the OAS, reminded the group that Cultural Ministers of the OAS wanted states to share best practices in information dissemination and to better integrate their activities. Infrastructure, data, technology tools and human intelligence must be developed to support effective exchange of information on cultural policies. She reported on the latest steps in the development of the Inter-American Network of Observatories of Cultural Policies, including a survey that was posted in the virtual forum of the OAS Website, whose results will allow the existing observatories to know each other's capabilities and interests.
Dr. Hillary Brown from the CARICOM Secretariat affirmed the importance of cooperation with the Caribbean region and the OAS and highlighted this seminar as an important opportunity for reflection and exchange of cultural information within the region. She noted the importance of culture in forging a sense of Caribbean identity and facilitating the free movement of people (artists being the first occupational category permitted to move among CARICOM countries without work permits). She noted the importance of cultural industries that are “sustainable because they are created by the people,” but also emphasized the resource constraints of culture ministries in the region.
Caribbean Vignettes and other Caribbean initiatives
Throughout the meeting, participants presented examples of their countries' cultural information systems: Antigua and Barbuda - www.culture.org.ag ; Barbados - www.barbmuse.org.bb ; Belize – www.nichbelize.org/index.php ; Dominica - www.divisionofculture.org ; Jamaica – www.jcdc.org.jm ; Saint Kitts and Nevis - www.stkittsculture.org and www.oecsculture.com ; Saint Lucia - www.stluciaculture.org and www.luciancarnival.com ; Saint Vincent and the Grenadines – www.svgtourism.com ; and T rinidad and Tobago – www.cdcgc.govt.tt .
It was clear from the vignettes and discussions among the participants, that cultural information in the Caribbean is not limited to nor dominated by the Internet. Due to the geographic fragmentation of the region, as well as to uneven, and sometimes limited, levels of internet connectivity and access by the general population, there is a need to rely on other channels to disseminate cultural information. Radio, fliers, TV, newspapers and magazines are commonly combined with the Internet.
The vignettes also demonstrated a wide array of approaches and primary foci. Broad objectives mentioned included, among others, safeguarding the countries' cultural heritage and identity; providing a space to artists and educators in the cultural field to exchange ideas and promote their work; promoting tourism while educating about the countries' culture and history and informing on activities, places and festivals of interest. Use of the Internet to market cultural products is of interest but still limited by legislation and technical considerations in many countries. It was also clear that the work done has required tremendous effort, both human and financial, in sometimes already overextended cultural offices.
Besides the countries' vignettes, presentations were made on previous attempts to develop a cultural information network in the Caribbean : CARIFORUM and a current initiative, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Cultural Network. Sharing the experiences of these two initiatives, plus some general information on UNESCO's Portal of Culture for Latin American and the Caribbean, and the experiences from other countries in and out the Caribbean provided an opportunity to reflect on common challenges and opportunities.
Hillary Brown from CARICOM shared the experience of the CARIFORUM Cultural Centers Program, a regional initiative sponsored by the European Union from 1998-2002 and currently dormant. This program developed a regional cultural Website, gave the CARICOM member States' personnel from the areas of culture training to upload and maintain the site, and provided the necessary equipment and soft-ware. After the EU funding came to an end, Jamaica offered to coordinate but it became too expensive to maintain. Currently, the website is not operative and CARICOM, through its culture division, is exploring possibilities to bring it back to life. It is worth mentioning that the discussions among the participants provided some analysis of some reasons for the initiative's fate. Among others, reasons mentioned were: (i) lack of resources (especially costs for hosting and updating equipment); (ii) no “ownership” (being a regional initiative nobody feels responsible for it); (iii) turn over within the ministries (staff changes within the ministries made it more difficult to institutionalize it and maintain trained personnel to update the information);
Marlene Phillips Lee from Saint Kitts and Nevis and Heather Doram from Antigua and Barbuda, touched on the experience of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Cultural Network, an initiative funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France for the OECS member countries plus the French departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique. The Network seeks to inform on cultural activities, and to connect artists, educators and practitioners in the cultural field. The delegate described the initiative's current stage of development, as well as its challenges. From the discussions and comments from other delegates, the main challenges once this initial phase funded by the French government end can be summarized as follows: (i) how to guarantee sustainability, leadership and continuity, and how to persuade policy makers of its importance; (ii) how to guarantee integration and participation of all the members of the Network. (Even right now, at its initial phase, not all the members countries are active participants); (iii) availability and training of personnel and partners; (iv) how to engage and maintain core supporters and establish active alliances to guarantee an inflow of information and use of the Network as a tool to connect and promote artists and educators; (v) how to market the Network and score high in the Internet search engines with limited financial resources; (vi) how to organize gather, input and select quality information and establish an editorial board that overviews the content; (vii) how to secure the necessary human and financial resources in each of the countries to continue feeding information to the Network; (viii) linguistic considerations in this multilingual subregion.
Participants reported on their own work and how they conceive of a cultural information system in their country. Definitions varied slightly; some general conceptions were put forth around a standardized multimedia tool, clearinghouse, or mechanism for cultural information collection, dissemination, discussion, and exchange for cultural communities, artists, students, researchers, decision-makers, citizens, the public, etc. Most agreed on four basic components: 1) data is organized and structured; 2) information is disseminated; 3) a technical platform enables sharing of information and building bridges; and 4) content is updated regularly and is relevant to different groups.
Session 1: Getting to Know Cultural Information Systems
Mr. Vladimir Skok and Ms. Joelle Mader, CCO, reported on the Decima survey that canvassed participants on their organizational needs (presentation attached). Concerns were raised around resource needs, revenue generation, sustainability, standardization of information, “making the case” to decision-makers, digitization, universal Internet accessibility, the practicalities of collecting information from diverse cultural sources, among others. Some commonalities of sites included: under three years old; national, regional, and international in scope; broad range of information; events calendars; targeting a cultural audience; importance of market research; promotion and advertising through traditional marketing tools; lack of editors; and a search function. Dr. Brown offered the challenges associated with examples of CARICOM websites dedicated to CARIFEST.
Session 2 – Case Study 1: The View From Mexico
Alfonso Castellanos explained the development of two Mexican cultural portals: www.ecultura.gob.mx ; and http://sic.conaculta.gob.mx/.
As he navigated showing the different features of the Mexican cultural portals, he stressed that the cultural information system (CIS) has been an effort of over a decade of constant work, which built from an existing resources among local governmental institutions throughout the country. As such, the work is decentralized and relies on input from all the contributing institutions, while the content is governed by an editorial board. Nonetheless, today five people work full-time on these initiatives. The second portal, e-cultura, was developed later and organizes the information by content, not institution, while relying on many of the databases of the original CIS. Right now Mexico is developing a Cultural Policy Observatory. He noted that in Mexico , they began with development of a cultural information system and only later developed information portals, but this may not be common practice today and working on the two initiatives simultaneously may be a good approach. Research initiatives such as a national survey of cultural practices of the population served as important inputs to understand and cater for cultural needs and preferences through the portal. One interesting finding was that the biggest consumers of culture were youth 17-22 years of age.
Session 2 – Case Study 2: The View From Civil Society
Ms. Aimee Fullman reported on the information projects of the not-for-profit cultural think tank, the Center for Arts and Culture, which is now closed (as of December 2005). She described the Cultural Commons ( www.culturalpolicy.org ; www.culturalcommons.org ) and inventory of resources and dissemination tool which includes a web portal, on-line forum, list serv newsletter and organizational website. The list serv has since been adopted by Americans for the Arts, the largest arts advocacy organization in the US . She recommended self-sustaining techniques for information systems such as: diversify income; know your strengths; identify and target your audience; use focus groups, leverage resources with partners; don't limit outreach to traditional partners; minimize overhead costs; build in evaluation and monitoring; and build in dissemination systems into project proposals.
Session 3 – Case Study 3: We Are Not Alone: Lessons From Elsewhere
Vladimir Skok presented on the work of Culture.mondo ( www.culturemondo.org ), an informal international network of cultural portals that have collaborated to develop a ‘portal of portals.' Most members are national portals, cultural observatories or specialized thematic portals that offer both centralized and decentralized information. The network relies on intellectual collaboration and informal partnerships to maintain and update the Culture.mondo website, as well as inform their own websites.
Session 4 – Collecting, Organizing and Presenting Cultural Content
Joelle Mader and Vladimir Skok discussed the challenges of content organization of two Canadian portals which form part of the Canadian Culture On-line Strategy: culture.ca ( www.culture.ca ), a national portal on culture; and CultureScope ( www.culturescope.ca ), the website of the Canadian Cultural Observatory. Culture.ca engages the public in cultural life, educates, and entertains websurfers with Canadian stories and provides access to Canadian culture on-line through feature sites, events listings, newsletters, and other interactive features. The Observatory collaborates with partners to inform and advance cultural development by providing specialized services that foster more responsive research, inform decision-making, and stimulate community debate. These services include collecting cultural policy information, newsletters, support to projects and initiatives, and providing space for discussion groups.
Session 5 – Summary of Workshop and Next Steps for Collaboration
Rapporteurs Monica Villegas, OAS and Heather De Santis, Canadian Heritage, identified 4 major themes that emerged over the two days of discussion. Participants and Discussant, Hilary Brown, CARICOM, contributed to ideas that could be useful to member States engaged in developing cultural information systems:
1. Funding – make a case to decision makers; need to network to share information on funding; be creative about tapping into existing funds; leverage resources with partners internal and external to government (tourism, foreign ministries, companies); develop e-commerce; present a white paper for governments; work together regionally to sensitize policy makers; prepare a project listing what Caribbean countries need; link culture to development; better communication between regional organizations; find sourcing within countries; maximize volunteers; approach private sector; seek support for digitization; a multifaceted approach; presentation to Directors of Culture; and the for need a coordinator among participants.
2. Self-definition – many definitions of what a cultural information system is, but need to define for who you are; define your target audience; decide how to package your information; select appropriate tools for your audience; work with users to develop basis for websites; start small by collecting all existing cultural sites; and the importance of non-traditional and traditional information.
3. Information collection – utilize existing information; organize website to the way your users think; websites need to be dynamic, colorful, interesting (visual quality counts); be persistent and creative about collecting information from traditional communities; capture and produce clear frameworks for structure of the information; maximize construction and presentation of information to target decision-makers; national and regional level cooperation on classification schemes; consider a “portal of portals” for Caribbean countries; tap into English-language community, universities and other interested parties outside the region; create reciprocal relationships with whom you are linking; go after the easy information and use others' content to build up your site; create content around links to ensure search engines find you; respect IP; and distribute content management to experts in your community; and beware of the “drug” of buying keywords.
4. Partnerships – maximizing existing information, labour, cultural communities and associations; make your partners your advisors so that they have a stake in your website; make efforts to educate cultural groups about multiple benefits of portals; communicate and partner with global diaspora; and collaborate with High Commissions abroad.
The workshop report, presentations, a list of participants and other documentation from the workshop will be sent to participants and available on the OAS website, at http://www.oas.org/udse/english/cpo_cult_horizo.asp. There will also be links to the information from the two other OAS cultural information workshops.
Participants offered ideas for the next workshops: use more roundtable discussion and break-out groups; ensure presentations of everyone's websites; include discussion of technical aspects; take NGO concerns into account; dedicate more time to national vignettes; productive to have conversations between the three sub-regions of the OAS.
The participants stressed the importance of this type of event and how valuable it would be to their work to have more technical training and information, as well as to work together to identify sources of support.
Lenore Yaffee Garcia of the OAS reminded the group of the upcoming Inter-American Committee on Culture (CIC) meeting on March 28, 2006. She suggested that upcoming OAS seminars on good practices in preserving heritage, and on culture's role in education systems, as well as the Culture Ministerial meeting in the fall, could be excellent opportunities to highlight and build support for the role of cultural information systems.