The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is leading the field when it comes to e-participation. It has used remote participation in 1000+ meetings with more than 5000 delegates in attendance.
Anders Norsker, Chief of the Information Services Department at the ITU, was in Malta this week to address Diplo's conference on Innovation in Diplomacy. With more than 700 industry members, the ITU's remote participation challenge is to ensure participation in the UN from anywhere, with any device, in any language.
Norsker shared some interesting figures. Picture it: one meeting, 4 weeks, 4000 delegates, 45000 hotel nights - if all the necessary paperwork were printed it would be in the region of 100 million pages – paper from 5% of all trees in Central Park with emissions of 1000 tons of carbon dioxide. Now picture remote participation - and see the effects in terms of savings and effiencies. Add this to the ability to participate in a number of meetings and workshops simultaneously by forming remote hubs and monitoring all sessions.
There are downsides though and pitfalls to watch. For instance, with remote participants it's easier to forget some people out there and this could cause some upset. With people accessing remotely, it's hard to maintain a standard - people make interventions on their smart phone while driving. Quality is particularly important when it comes to interpreting into one of the six languages offered by the UN. The ITU actually recruited a DJ to improve the sound and also to vet interventions beforehand in a staging area to check lighting and backgrounds.
But what happens when technology fails, when a participant switches off deliberately? What about immunities and privileges? How can we be sure that it is Ambassador X making the intervention? Can we authenticate and be anonymous?
For Norsker it's about building trust in technology. Meetings will be held in 2014 in Korea on whether remote participation can be accepted as a legal issue. There is news in the pipeline of Google and Microsoft changing their revision system and including an audit trail in all documents rather than versioning.
Virtul meetings are here to stay – they won’t take over physical meetings – they will supplement them, giving voice to more people worldwide, and while they may not prove popular with the hotel industry, they certainly offer viable efficiencies and more environmentally friendly alternatives.