The History of GFIS

The early days of GFIS

Since the 1980s it has become apparent that better access to forest information globally would assist policymakers, researchers, forest managers, conservationists, and others in their efforts to address society’s needs regarding sustainable use and management of the world’s forest resources. Improving access to forest information was formally recognized as a priority by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. As stated in Agenda 21, Chapter 40: “Existing national and international mechanisms of information processing and exchange, and of related technical assistance, should be strengthened to ensure effective and equitable availability of information generated at the local, provincial, national and international levels…”.

In 1997, the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests re-introduced the importance of gaining access to information when it stated: “The Panel emphasized the need to review and improve information systems.” In order to advance this idea, CIFOR hosted a workshop on “Provision of Forest Information on the Web” at the XI FAO World Forestry Congress in Turkey in 1997. The concept of a GFIS was well received there. Subsequently, the Executive Board of IUFRO directed IUFRO Working Party 4.02, which established a Task Force on Information. Its aim was to contribute to the preparation of a strategy for improving access to forest information and development of relevant management systems.

In 1998 an “International Consultation on Research and Information Systems in Forestry” (ICRIS) was held in Gmunden, Austria. The consultation examined ways and means to implement research support, with particular emphasis on the interface between researchers and the user community, as well as on the role of research in policy formulation. Another goal was to provide background information for future international forest processes. In its conclusions, the meeting recommended to the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF) to “endorse and promote the development of a global forest information service to enhance access to all forest-related information, ensuring that it is accessible to all stakeholders including policy-makers, forest managers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community groups and the public at large.”

As a consequence, the IFF called for promoting the provision and efficient sharing of existing information and the strengthening of networks, and specifically “requested ITFF (Inter-agency Task Force on Forests) member organizations to work with IUFRO in exploring possibilities for a global forest information service” (IFF, 1999). GFIS thus began in 1998 as a IUFRO Task Force to address the problem of access to search facilities for forest information. Emphasis was placed on including developing countries into this service.

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GFIS Africa

In its endeavour to promote GFIS in developing and economically disadvantaged countries IUFRO in cooperation with national and international partner organisations and with substantial support by the European Commission implemented the GFIS Africa Project from 2001 until 2004 titled “Mobilising scientific information on forests to promote their sustainable management in ACP countries” (Operation No.: B7-6201/99-06/FOR). Over a period of 54 months, (January 2000 to June 2004) IUFRO-SPDC acted as project manager and coordinated the activities to develop GFIS in Africa. The present report provides a final account of the entire project describing technical results and achievements and financial and administrative management. Additional, more detailed information on activities and products is also included in a series of annexes.

The mission of GFIS as an Internet gateway is to enhance access to all forest information, ensuring that it is accessible to all stakeholders including policy-makers, researchers, forest managers, NGOs, community groups and the public at large. With this end in mind the Forestry Research Network of Sub-Saharan Africa (FORNESSA) as regional project implementer established five GFIS Service Centres or Nodes, one each in Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and Zimbabwe. Except for Gabon, where an environmental NGO took nodal responsibilities, all GFIS Service Centres are hosted by national forestry research organisations. These centres serve regional needs and assist in the discovery of information resources, metadata management, GFIS technical maintenance and communication with GFIS information providers. The project provided the necessary computer hard- and software and implemented a comprehensive capacity building programme for nodal staff such as  webmasters and content managers. Once established, the centres organised metadata mobilisation campaigns in various countries through workshops, training courses or individual coaching sessions. More than 3.000 metadata records about unpublished scientific reports were collected and made globally available through GFIS. In order to demonstrate the added value of scientific output that can be achieved through enhanced collaboration and information sharing, the project supported a group of African scientists in their work to compile a scientific synthesis on rehabilitation of degraded lands in Africa. The GFIS Africa Project greatly benefited from partnership with several international organisations such as FAO, ETFRN, CAB International, CIRAD Forêt and CIFOR.

Major impacts of the project include (a) enhanced awareness among African forest scientists of the importance of proper information management and sharing; (b) substantial increase in capacities in information management at key institutions; (c) significant contributions to the overall development of GFIS; and (d) strengthening of FORNESSA through intensified collaboration among its scientists. Because GFIS has fully been integrated into the regular work programme and staff positions of participating institutions the sustainability of GFIS operations in Africa is secured.

The project has been guided by a Steering Committee comprising representatives of key institutions of FORNESSA and international partners. All project activities were implemented on the basis of agreements and contract. Total project costs amount to EUR 1.391.173, of which EUR 991.173 were provided through a grant by the European Commission and about 29% of the total are contributions by other national and international organisations such as Canadian Forest Service, ODA Japan, BMZ Germany, DANIDA Denmark, FAO Rome, IUFRO-SPDC and African partner institutions.

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Development of the global system

With the Task Force as an advisory body, GFIS was upgraded to a Special Program of IUFRO in 2001 to give it a more permanent status and to reflect the progress made in developing the network. In cooperation with FAO, CIFOR and EFI, IUFRO developed a global-scale, metadata-based distributed forest information infrastructure. IUFRO operated the service in accordance with international, open data access standards.

The first version of GFIS was presented at the IUFRO European Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in August 2002. It was also successfully demonstrated at the XII FAO World Forestry Congress in Quebec, Canada in September 2003. It included contributions from over 60 forestry institutions from across the world. Related projects included a GFIS Thesaurus Project, GFIS Documentation, GFIS Africa Project, GFIS Latin America, and the Network.

GFIS developed quite successfully, within a very short period of time, and became the primary Internet gateway to forest information resources from around the world. By 2003, users could locate maps, datasets, web resources, journal articles, books and other resources relevant to their forest information needs. GFIS made available over 120,000 records from over 50 forest information providers in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. It continued to grow rapidly, and access to this information was free. Forest information holders became interested in promoting their information resources through GFIS. As a distributed network, GFIS only collected metadata such as title, author, year of publication and the Internet link (URL), allowing contributors to retain full ownership of their information resources.

In 2004, GFIS became a formal initiative of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) under the umbrella of UNFF (United Nations Forum on Forests). The initiative was based on a joint proposal developed by IUFRO, FAO and CIFOR. IUFRO was appointed to lead this initiative, but would collaborate and share responsibilities with other partners. As a CPF initiative GFIS achieved high
visibility at the global level and became an even more important channel for enhancing access to all forest information to a broad range of stakeholders. The new GFIS was launched at the XXII IUFRO Congress 2005 in Brisbane, Australia. It was introduced as an advanced search service and tool to provide forest-related information to the forestry community. The GFIS gateway catalogued key information resources, such as news, events, publications and job vacancies by information providers.

In 2006, a major change in technology driving the GFIS website took place in order to take advantage of the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) approach. The RSS approach was a standard web feed format designed to automatically pull content from multiple websites. Adopting this technology allowed for an increase in the amount of content made available via the gateway, as partner organizations could autonomously share their content. In the course of this change the upgraded GFIS gateway offered a modern search tool to global forest information resources, as well as windows to latest news, upcoming events, recent publications and job opportunities on the front page. The interface of the gateway was available in English, Spanish, French and German. Partner institutions from around the world which published their information resources on their websites made this content searchable through GFIS. The main goal was to gather forest information and serve as a tool to explore this information. To make this possible, GFIS needed partners who would provide information feeds about various types of forest information. This GFIS partnership development was implemented through a series of GFIS training workshops. These workshops took place in 2006; Russian partners met in Moscow and Asian partners met in Beijing. Another GFIS training workshop for Latin American partners was held at CATIE in Costa Rica in March 2007.

GFIS launched a new, more user-friendly interface in 2008 and attracted numerous additional international and national partners. GFIS did so through a series of training and partnership development projects. Through the GFIS gateway, partners could achieve more visibility and recognition of information. The gateway was also able to facilitate the increase in the number of potential information users and improve possibilities for networking and cooperation with other forest-related organizations. The GFIS gateway attracted more than 50 new information provider partners during the year and by the end of 2009, it had established 170 partnerships across the globe.

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Consolidation and expansion

In order to further expand GFIS all over the world, the GFIS gateway and the partnership concept were introduced to potential partners in several global and regional seminars and workshops by the Coordinator Eero Mikkola and the Regional Coordinator for Asia and Russia. Training workshops and side events were held in the UK. These workshops and events also took place at the Second World Congress of Agroforestry in Nairobi, Kenya and the XIII World Forestry Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2009. More workshops and side events were held in Beijing, China in 2011, and in Tsukuba, Japan and Seoul, South Korea in 2013. Through these workshops, as well as through continued presence at IUFRO Congresses and other international and regional forest events, the
CPF joint initiative led by IUFRO, grew to encompass over 400 partners who utilize GFIS to help disseminate their information.

Over time, there have been continued technological advances to GFIS. These advances have been carried out by Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke; formerly the Finnish Forest Research Institute (Metla). Luke is responsible for the technical development and maintenance of the GFIS gateway. It is also responsible for housing the GFIS-IUFRO Coordination Unit. Further development was completed in order to improve options for information provider partners and create flexibility for them to promote their information resources. Developments focused on improving features for accessing information. The advances at this time included: an improved search tool, and an improved website layout. These helped to increase the visibility of news, events, publications, job opportunities, educational resources and more. Further efforts to enhance the GFIS Portal continued: additional facilities on the GFIS website were developed, including the ability to add metadata (keywords) to information shared on the GFIS gateway. This offered users the possibility to obtain information according to their region or field of specialization, and to group the results according to highlighted topics. In addition, work was completed to streamline the look and layout of the website and improve mobile scalability, thus ensuring easier content navigation.

With an ever-increasing number of organizations and people utilizing the Internet for their information dissemination and access, GFIS has been a valuable service to collect and archive forest-related content. In 2016 for example, more than 6,000 news items, 2,800 publications, 600 job vacancies, and 550 videos were collected and made available via GFIS. These items will be archived, allowing information seekers to access otherwise difficult to find information in the future. The portal has seen consistent traffic over recent years. Between 17,000 and 20,000 information seekers utilized GFIS each month, between 2012 to 2016. In addition to experiencing an increase in information and online traffic, GFIS has grown its online presence through providing other websites with tailored information. GFIS has released a popular newsletter and maintained an active presence on social media. Given the above-mentioned achievements to date, hosting the GFIS initiative at Luke was indeed a success story. Stable institutional support has proven to be a precondition to further develop and smoothly operate such a long-term undertaking.

Over the years, GFIS has received support from a wide range of partners around the world, as both in-kind and financial contributions. Major donors for developing and operating GFIS have been the US Forest Service; National Institute of Forest Science in the Republic of Korea (formerly the Korea Forest Research Institute); the Austrian Government through the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management; and the European Commission. Significant in-kind contributions through expertise and staff-time have been provided by the Forestry Department of FAO in Rome, Italy; Oxford University; CAB International; European Forest Institute (EFI); the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR); the European Tropical Forest Research Network (ETFRN); and the National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII), USA. GFIS has also received support from numerous IUFRO member organizations around the globe.

In 2021, IUFRO conducted a review of its knowledge and information management. With the aim to create a new information resources centre for improved knowledge sharing, IUFRO decided to discontinue GFIS as a separate entity. After more than 20 years of disseminating forest-related information from around the world, the GFIS project ended in 2021.