The Challenges of Building an International Virtual Community Using Internet Technologies

Mario de Paula Leite GOUVÊA <>
LEAD International



The Leadership for Environment and Development program, LEAD, was established in 1991 by the Rockefeller Foundation with the basic mission of capacity building for selected potential leaders whose actions will contribute to the decisions made about environment and development issues in most parts of the world. LEAD Associates are selected from five different sectors of society: government, media, business, academia, and nongovernmental organizations. They are between the ages of 28 and 40 and come from more than 40 different countries through the 12 LEAD Member Programs: Brazil, Canada, China, the Commonwealth of Independent States, Europe, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, and six countries of Southern Africa. LEAD Associates are expected to attend 16 weeks of training in a two-year period. Their employers contribute to the LEAD program by allowing them to be absent from their jobs during that time. Every year LEAD selects a new Cohort of Associates. A Cohort is composed of 15 mid-career professionals from each LEAD Member Program totaling approximately 180 individuals.

Figure 1. Group of LEAD Associates during an International Training Session in Beijing, China.

A major challenge for decision makers in all countries in a globalized world is to promulgate policies for environment and development that improve the quality of life for their people. The development of those policies will require innovative thought and sensitive, creative management for their development and implementation. The LEAD training program is designed to stimulate thinking that transcends traditional boundaries between cultures, nationalities, disciplines, and generations. Every year each of the LEAD Member Programs organizes several national training sessions where they bring 15 Associates together at a time to participate in a one-week session where they are exposed to issues related to environment and development through several methodologies such as case studies, field site visits, lectures, and participatory learning techniques. In addition to the national-level training, each Cohort of Associates participates in two International Training Sessions and one Mid-Term International Session. These sessions are designed to bring together a group of 200 or more Associates from the LEAD Member Programs to a setting with which they are unfamiliar and where they are going to be able to study problems similar to those they have back in their countries. Associates work in small multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary groups where they can share and learn each other's views on the issues they study. In addition, these multicultural groups go out to the field and have the opportunity to interact with local experts and visit local communities. Once Associates finish the two-year training program they graduate and become LEAD Fellows who are eligible to apply for funds for conference participation, projects, and internships through the Fellows Program.

The major challenge back in 1991 was to link the LEAD Member Programs and LEAD Associates using a cost-effective means of communication to keep the Network of LEAD Associates alive once they went back home. At that time access to Internet was mainly available to academic institutions in developed countries. LEAD then was composed of its headquarters in New York and Member Programs in seven of the most populated developing countries on earth: Brazil, CIS, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Nigeria.

Figure 2. Map showing number of Associates/Fellows per LEAD Member Program (as of December 1999)

Setting the infrastructure: choosing the right technologies

The first challenge in establishing the LEAD Network (LEADnet), by then called GINS (Global Information Network System), was establishing the basic information technology infrastructure in each of the LEAD Member Programs required to interconnect them via e-mail. Some of them were hosted by academic institutions, which made access to an established e-mail network relatively easier. Other programs were hosted by independent organizations without a basic information technology (IT) staff and infrastructure. The initial step in setting the infrastructure to support a cost-effective communications network was to hire a local indigenous staff to establish their local area network (LAN) and e-mail, support Associates' connectivity, and interface with the local PTTs. They are now called LEADnet Coordinators. The second step was to select an e-mail provider that could be used in the seven countries hosting the LEAD Program. The technology selected at the time was MCI-Mail which allowed for the exchange of e-mails via local PSTN (Packet Switch Telecommunications Network), local dial-up to MCI centers, or international dial-up from the Member Programs to MCI in the United States.

Once the e-mail network was set up it was realized that e-mail communications alone was not enough to support the LEAD Program; there was a need to exchange information and knowledge using a data repository. In addition, the costs of providing e-mail access to all the Associates using MCI-Mail were prohibitive because the majority of the LEAD Programs had to dial-up internationally. Different options were analyzed, including the possibility of establishing one bulletin board system (BBS) in each of the LEAD offices. That option was soon discarded once it was realized that there was a tremendous potential in using the Internet and its related technologies to support the LEAD Program.

LEAD soon purchased one Data General UNIX Workstation for each of the LEAD Member Programs and two for LEAD headquarters and organized a comprehensive workshop for the LEADnet Coordinators in establishing a LEADnet node. That was the first LEADnet Coordinators' Workshop. The training consisted of installing and managing UNIX, setting up SLIP (Serial Line Internet Protocol) to support dial-up connections, setting up Gopher, FTP (file transfer protocol) server, and configuring TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/Internet protocol) and DNS among other topics. The Workshop, organized by the University of Kentucky in July 1993, exposed the LEADnet Coordinators to the World Wide Web (WWW) for the first time through a session on the X Window System version of Mosaic. The training was conducted on the same workstations the LEADnet Coordinators were going to utilize back home. The hands-on workshop simulated the environment the attendees were going to encounter back in their countries -- they had to install and configure the operating system and applications from scratch. The simulations included the installation of SLIP and e-mail on personal computers (PCs) to simulate the environment the LEAD Associates were going to use.

After the workshop was finished, the workstations were shipped to each of the LEAD offices. Problems with customs and precarious infrastructure conditions in some of those countries delayed the full deployment of the first phase of LEADnet. That caused an uneven development of LEADnet.

Internet was the right choice: the problem was its availability in developing countries

As LEAD Associates joined the LEAD program they would receive a computer, modem, printer, and an account to access e-mail and the Internet through LEAD. In addition to the equipment and account they would receive intensive training on how to utilize their equipment, e-mail, and the Internet. Initially there was a difference in the kind of services provided by the LEAD Member Programs. Some of them would provide their Associates with full access to the Internet through a dial-up SLIP account. Others such as LEAD China would develop a users' package containing all the necessary Internet software required to access the Net as well as detailed instructions. Others could not even get their offices connected to e-mail due to telecommunications infrastructure problems, exorbitant data traffic costs due to monopolies, and lack of proper training in setting up their own network (some LEADnet Coordinators were unable to attend the first workshop).

Temporary solutions were found for some of the problems: LEAD Nigeria was connected via UUCP (UNIX to UNIX copy protocol) to LEAD International through long-distance calls. The server in New York would call LEAD Nigeria's server several times a week to download and upload messages sent to and from the address. The UUCP connection was transparent to the users; the file translated the UUCP addresses on the New York server. That connection was used from 1995 until 1998 when LEAD Nigeria started utilizing the services of an Internet service provider (ISP) in the United States to store their e-mail messages and one ISP in Lagos for their dial-up connections. LEAD Nigeria still has problems today due to the fact that the office is located in a remote area in Lagos where basic telecommunications infrastructure do not work. A microwave radio connection is being set up between the LEAD office in Lagos and an ISP to provide the office with full Internet connectivity and to support the telecommunications needs of the LEAD Associates and Fellows from LEAD Nigeria.

LEAD Associates are selected from several different regions of the countries where LEAD Programs exist. In some cases Associates come from remote areas where basic telephone infrastructure is almost non-existent, in others unavailable. In those remote areas where telephone lines do not work as expected and electricity goes down often, the only way Associates can access the resources provided by LEAD is by using paper-based material and/or the LEADnet CD-ROM. The CD-ROM is produced annually and contains an offline copy of LEAD International's Web site, the database of Fellows and Associates, videos about the organization, publications by partner organizations, and the software necessary to browse its contents. It contains most of the documentation used in past International Training Sessions and is distributed to all the Associates and Fellows keeping those without the minimum infrastructure to access e-mail or the Web connected to the LEAD Community.

Some of the LEAD Member programs benefited from the infrastructure existent in their countries. LEAD Brazil, in its early stages back in 1993, benefited from the National Research Network Internet Backbone (RNP, Rede Nacional de Pesquisa) which connected the major universities in Brazil and covered a large part of the country, enabling LEAD Associates and Fellows to access the Internet by making a local call to the nearest RNP point of presence. Brazilian Associates located in the city of Sao Paulo benefited from the fact that LEAD Brazil is hosted inside the University of Sao Paulo, which has high-speed Internet connectivity directly to FAPESP (Fundacao de Amparo a Pesquisa do Estado de Sao Paulo), one of the RNP nodes and the main node of ANSP (an Academic Network at Sao Paulo) which has several international links to the United States and interconnects most of the universities in the state of Sao Paulo. LEAD Pakistan Associates had access to e-mail through SDNP (UNDP's Sustainable Development Networking Programme) and LEAD Mexico Associates could access the Internet though "El Colegio del Mexico," the organization hosting LEAD Mexico.

As the Internet developed, access to it became widely available and ISPs started to appear all around the world and in the LEAD Member Program countries. Soon the LEAD offices stopped acting as "ISPs" to the LEAD Associates and started concentrating their efforts in further developing the information systems LEADnet provides to the LEAD Community. Nowadays most of the Associates that join LEAD already have experience with computers as well as their own e-mail accounts.

Next step: start building the community as the infrastructure improves

In 1994 the minimum common denominator in terms of access to Internet resources was e-mail. Most of the LEAD Associates were able to access e-mail, though not without connectivity problems such as bad telephone lines, power failure, equipment problems, and configuration problems. At that time Internet software was not straightforward to configure. The Microsoft Windows operating system did not come with built-in support for TCP/IP so third-party software had to be installed and configured. Most of the e-mail software used by LEAD at the time was server-based e-mail systems such as PINE or ELM. In order to access those systems, be able to retrieve attachments, and print messages from the UNIX server in the local printer, LEAD Associates had to receive basic UNIX training and instructions on how to use uuencode and uudecode, deal with MIME attachments, use ftp, set terminal options, etc. All the functionality that comes built-in in today's operating systems and Web-based e-mail systems had to be carefully covered during the LEADnet training sessions. A lot of time was spent in order to perform tasks that are taken for granted these days.

The first step in integrating the LEAD Community was to set up an electronic mailing list to allow Associates from different countries and Cohorts to communicate. The idea was to create a mailing list to link all LEAD Associates and Fellows from the first Cohort to the active Cohort at the time. The system chosen was LISTPROC, which at the time was available for free and supported the major features available in most mailing list servers: moderated list, digest, automatic archival of messages, etc. The LEADnet staff compiled LISTPROC on the DG/UX system, configured it, and sent an announcement to all the LEAD Fellows and Associates via e-mail asking them to subscribe to LEAD-L, the first international electronic mailing list of the LEAD Program.

A few months following the announcement, the number of Associates subscribing to LEAD-L started to increase. The demographics of the list was a direct reflection of the connectivity status of LEADnet. Most of the people subscribed to LEAD-L were from LEAD Canada (which started in 1994), LEAD Mexico, LEAD Brazil, and LEAD CIS. Figure 3 shows the LEADnet Connectivity Status in October 1995. This map does not represent the Internet connectivity status in those countries but the connectivity status of each of the LEAD Member Program offices.

Figure 3. Map showing the LEADnet Connectivity status in 1995

The LEAD-L mailing list never reached its intended purpose: to connect all the LEAD Associates via e-mail. There are several reasons for that. The main reason is the fact that the Associates had to subscribe to the list by themselves; they were not automatically subscribed to it when joining LEAD. Reasons for not subscribing included connectivity problems, lack of knowledge on how to subscribe to LEAD-L, lack of experience using an e-mail package, equipment problems, and fear of computers. In 1996 LEAD had 550 Associates and Fellows, of which 237 were subscribed to LEAD-L.

In order to reach all the LEAD Associates and Fellows utilizing a single communications channel, LEAD-L was deactivated and replaced with a new mailing list based on a Microsoft Exchange Server. Each of the IT staff members of the LEAD Member Programs, the LEADnet Coordinators, created a mailing list in his/her own server for each of the Cohorts of LEAD Associates and managed those lists from that moment on. A list for each cohort was created at LEAD International, which automatically forwards e-mail messages to the National and Regional cohort mailing lists created by the LEADnet Coordinators. A list for all the cohorts was then created at LEAD International that forwards e-mails to all the Member Program lists reaching Associates and Fellows from Cohort 1 to Cohort 8. As a new Cohort of Associates joins LEAD, a mailing list is created in each of the LEAD Member Programs and linked to the allcohorts list at LEAD International. The lists are managed by the LEADnet Coordinators and do not require the Associates to subscribe. They are automatically added to the list, which gives them access to the worldwide network of LEAD Fellows and Associates.

In 2000 LEAD has 1122 Fellows and Associates, of which all are automatically subscribed to the allcohorts list. Now the only factors limiting their access to the network of LEAD Fellows and Associates are related to technical difficulties and not to the lack of information on how to subscribe.

Building a presence on the World Wide Web

In early 1994 the LEAD International Web site was made available to the LEAD community. The Web site was hosted in a Data General Workstations running DG/UX and the NCSA httpd Web server. The Web site contained basic information about the LEAD Program as well as online guides containing links to Internet resources on Trade, Environment, Development, and Food.

Later in the same year LEAD Brazil developed its Web site and in the following year other LEAD Programs followed: LEAD CIS, LEAD China, LEAD Mexico, and LEAD Indonesia. In 1996 the LEAD Europe program started and their first Web site was developed. In 1997 LEAD Japan joined LEAD and developed its first site. The last LEAD Program to establish a Web site was LEAD Southern Africa in 1999. At first the LEAD Web sites were going to be physically hosted at each of the LEAD Member Programs, but as the Internet developed it was realized that it would make more sense to host some of them in servers located in the United States where they would benefit from a better developed infrastructure. The first Web site to be hosted at LEAD International was LEAD Indonesia's Web site, which was hosted from early 1996 until late 1997 when LEAD Indonesia was able to host its own site at a reasonable performance level. LEAD India's first Web site was developed in early 1998 and hosted at LEAD International. An ISP in the United States is currently hosting it and its mirror is at LEAD International, which also hosts sites for LEAD Pakistan and LEAD Southern Africa.

In early 2000 LEAD had 13 different Web sites: LEAD International, LEAD Brazil, LEAD Canada, LEAD CIS, LEAD China, LEAD Europe, LEAD India, LEAD Indonesia, LEAD Japan, LEAD Mexico, LEAD Nigeria, LEAD Pakistan, and LEAD Southern Africa. By the end of the year 2000 with the inclusion of a new LEAD Member Program in Francophone Africa, LEAD will have 14 Web sites serving the LEAD Community.

Developing Web-based information systems

Soon after LEAD established its presence on the WWW, the potential of the technology was realized and LEAD started developing Web-based information systems to support the LEAD Community. The main purpose of the LEAD Web sites was to provide the LEAD Community with access to information on the subjects related to the LEAD Curriculum, to support the training program and networking.

In order to support the networking of LEAD Fellows and Associates, a database containing information on them was developed in early 1995 and made available online. The database was generated on a UNIX workstation utilizing AWK programming language to convert the information from a file generated by dBase into several HTML (hypertext markup language) pages containing the name, e-mail address, picture, and biography of LEAD Associates. That database was fully searchable utilizing a simple search script. The development of that online database was the first step in utilizing the WWW as a tool to enable networking among the members of the LEAD Community. Through it they were able to access the biography of other LEAD Associates sharing the same interests as them and contacting them by following the link to their e-mail addresses.

During the same year in cooperation with IPS (Inter Press Service), an organization providing information on global issues backed by a network of journalists in more than 100 countries, LEAD started providing LEAD Associates with password-protected access to IPS News. At that time IPS did not have a Web site and distributed its news by a BBS. The LEADnet staff developed a automated system to retrieve the news files everyday utilizing a daily scheduled Zmodem file transfer from IPS to LEAD, and then convert the files into HTML pages consisting of a daily table of contents and individual news pages. It was developed on a UNIX workstation utilizing the AWK programming language. The system provided LEAD Associates with up-to-date access to a new service. The IPS news section of LEAD International's Web site was discontinued once IPS started providing it through their site.

As Web technologies evolved, LEAD started setting up Web sites to support each of its International Training Sessions. Each of those Web sites would contain a Concept Paper, information on the venue of the session, and information about the speakers and their papers in advance so Associates could get ready before arriving in the country where the session was held. After the session took place, pictures and the proceedings were made available online. LEAD Web sites were then more than just online brochures; they were starting to provide more relevant information supporting the training program.

As time passed the number of LEAD Member Programs increased from the initial seven most populated countries in the world to 13 Member Programs in the year 2000: LEAD International, LEAD Brazil, LEAD Canada, LEAD CIS, LEAD China, LEAD Europe, LEAD Francophone Africa, LEAD India, LEAD Indonesia, LEAD Japan, LEAD Mexico, LEAD Nigeria, LEAD Pakistan, and LEAD Southern Africa.

With the increasing number of LEAD Member Programs, number of Associates joining the program, and number of training sessions being organized around the world, the complexity of putting information online almost reached an unmanageable stage. At one point LEAD had 11 Web sites around the world, each with its own look, navigation interface, and information structure. There was no uniformity; it was not possible to jump from one site to the other; and each had the contact information in a different place and used different colors. By looking at two of the LEAD Web sites in 1997 it was hard to guess that they were part of the same organization.

In order to avoid the LEAD Web sites turning into a chaotic group of Web pages randomly dispersed throughout the globe without any structure, LEAD International developed the "LEAD Web Site Development Guidelines." That was a document containing information on how to structure each of the LEAD Web sites utilizing a newly developed graphical user interface, navigation bar, and information structure. The guidelines were presented during the Third LEADnet Coordinators Workshop organized in Switzerland in July 1998, parallel to INET'98, which the coordinators attended.

Figure 4. Some of the information systems available through LEAD International's Web site

How to minimize the effort of distributing and updating information globally?

The development of the LEAD Web Site Development Guidelines was the first step in trying to harmonize and simplify the process of distributing information to the LEAD Community throughout the LEAD Web sites. The second step was to create online databases to support the information services provided by LEADnet in order to minimize the effort required to add and update contents.

The reason for migrating most of the information distribution processes to database-based systems was very simple: by separating content from the design, future changes to the graphical user interface and information architecture of LEAD Web sites would be much simpler. Instead of having to change hundreds of pages containing data and design elements, only a couple of pages containing a design template and the queries to the database systems had to be changed. What is more, by separating content from design it was possible to allow an international audience to update information on LEAD sites through the use of Web-based interfaces to the database, without having to give them direct access to our Web servers' file systems.

The first database to be created was the LEADnet Photo Library, an online library of photographs taken during LEAD International Sessions. The photo library provided LEAD Associates and Fellows with access to hundreds of pictures online they would otherwise be unable to see. Without the Internet those pictures would be hidden in some bookshelf in the LEAD office in New York. The pictures are classified according to the location, date, training session, and contents. The classification of the images allowed LEAD to better develop its International Training Session pages. Instead of creating individual pages containing pictures taken during a specific session, we can now insert a query to the database that will return the pictures related to that session; for example, there is a query that retrieves all group pictures taken during a training session in China, in 1998, including the picture in Figure 1. The system was developed utilizing Microsoft's SQL (structured query language) Server and Allaire's Cold Fusion Application Server.

A major improvement caused by the adoption of Web-based relational database systems was on the way LEAD International used to update information on its Fellows and Associates. The first database of LEAD Fellows and Associates was a standalone system based on dBase. Each of the Member Programs had access to its own subset of the database and was responsible for updating it. Without a proper communications network the only way to exchange data was by shipping diskettes containing sections of the database internationally and synchronizing the data centrally. That system never worked as expected and was later replaced with a completely Web-based database system which allowed each of the LEAD Fellows and Associates to update their own information using a username and password. Each of the LEAD Member programs was provided with an administrator username and password, which gave them access to the information related to their country/region. This system is still being utilized today and has proven to be a better alternative to the previous methodology.

The audience utilizing the database is composed of individuals from more than 40 different countries where the first language is not English, the language of the LEAD Program. That fact forced us to develop an editing system to allow an English-speaking person to go through the information entered and correct it, making sure it follows our standards for publications. The editing system is simply another interface that gives the editor access to a subset of the database. The new interface took no more than a few days to be developed.

These two Web database systems proved to be reliable and easily expandable which suggested we should further explore the technology to improve the LEADnet services. We then decided to develop an online Database of Conferences containing information on upcoming conferences related to environment and development. That is an extremely simple online database that can be updated by the LEAD Associates and Fellows through the Web. Any Internet user can use the update interface of this database without the need for a password. In order to avoid people entering contents of an inappropriate nature, an intermediary draft database was created. Data entered into the online Database of Conference by a regular Internet user goes directly into the draft database, which is reviewed by a LEAD staff member and then transferred to the actual database using a Web interface.

The next steps in utilizing online database technologies were the development of LEADcat, a search engine/catalogue of links to Web sites containing information on topics related to environment and development and an International LEAD Calendar of Events.

The International LEAD Calendar of Events was developed to better integrate the work each of the LEAD Member Program does in terms of organizing LEAD Training Sessions. Each year LEAD organizes close to or more than 80 training sessions and meetings worldwide. In the past, information about those events was collected on an as-needed basis. Even after the development of the LEAD Web Site Development Guidelines, which included a standard for the location and design of the Calendar Web page on each LEAD Member Program Web sites, the process of gathering information about LEAD Events was time consuming and required someone to visit each of the LEAD Web sites looking for that information and then collect and process it. We solved that by creating a centralized Web-based database of events that can be updated by each of the LEADnet Coordinators from the Member Programs. The calendar database contains all the information you would expect to find in a calendar of events in addition to a link to the Web page containing detailed information about that specific event. That link gave the calendar the functionality of a jump-start page for Associates and Fellows looking for information on LEAD Events happening in the future and the functionality of an archive by providing visitors with links to sites holding information on LEAD events that happened in the past.

Figure 5. Basic architecture of the LEAD International Calendar of Events

In addition to providing links to regular LEAD events throughout the LEAD Member Programs, the Calendar also contains information about "virtual" events organized by LEADnet.

Virtual conferences

An interesting aspect of the LEAD Program is the fact that an Associate from one Member Program will have the opportunity to meet another Associate from another Member Program on several occasions. They will meet face to face in at least two International Sessions during the Associate phase and maybe other times in the Fellows Program phase. They will meet on several other occasions in the virtual world through the exchange of e-mail messages, participation on a pre-International Session chat session, or participation on a live virtual interactive chat session (webcast + chat)

Live interactive chat sessions utilize streaming technologies (audio/video) combined with a chat room and the "broadcast" of URLs (uniform resource locators) and slides to support a virtual conference on the Internet. This system allows for synchronous and asynchronous sharing of information because the live sessions can be recorded and posted on the Web for later viewing.

LEAD utilized the technology successfully three times in 1999, and is planning to utilize it many more times in the years to come to bring a disperse multicultural audience to share their knowledge and ideas.

Figure 6. Screen shot of one of the live interactive chat sessions organized by LEAD International: Can We Feed Ourselves? a live interactive chat with Professor M. S. Swaminathan

LEAD International currently uses many third-party tools to support its mailing lists, BBSs, chat rooms, and other information systems available through its site. Future expansion of the services provided by LEADnet to the LEAD Community include utilization of XML (extensible markup language) to ease the process of updating contents while keeping the design ready for modifications, better integration of the existing systems, and development of an integrated media library which will give LEAD Associates access to a categorized database of documents, videos, live interactive chat session archives, interviews, and e-mails exchanged through mailing lists.


In order to reach the point where LEAD could host virtual live interactive chat sessions over the Web, a lot of work had to be done to solve some of the basic infrastructure and connectivity problems. Not all of them have been solved today but if we had waited for all the LEAD Member Programs to reach a stage where all of them had full Internet connectivity we would not even have a Web site.

With that in mind here are some recommendations for multinational nonprofit organizations trying to build virtual communities: