Habitat Scotland, an independent environmental research charity based on the Isle of Skye since 1980, was responsible for putting forward the whole Global Islands Network (GIN) concept. The origins of GIN can be traced back to 1994 when Habitat’s Director attended the United Nations Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States and the parallel NGO Islands Forum held in Barbados. The Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the Barbados Conference proposed solutions to problems under 14 priority areas established as being of great concern to small islands. These were further divided into 214 national, regional and international actions, policies and measures that were identified and agreed upon. An immediate major initiative recommended by the Conference was that regional organisations and networks be created to strengthen the ability of small islands to develop in a sustainable manner.
Isle of Skye
In response to this call, Habitat started operating the Skye International Teleservice Centre (SITC) in January 1995, which formed an islands network covering the Baltic, Caribbean, North and South Atlantic. This Centre trained local students for a teleworking vocational qualification and as part of their course work they helped design the SITC website which built up an extensive collection of island links and contacts. As students developed their desktop publishing skills they also assisted Centre staff to produce five issues of the popular 'Islander' magazine that was freely distributed to several thousand people by now connected through an informal network. The SITC also became a partner in the European Commission funded Teleinsula project along with Lipari, Madeira, Samos and TRAINET, an Italian company which offered a broad range of services directly related to distance learning and telematics. This project was co-ordinated by the International Scientific Council for Island Development based at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris and identified three sectors – education, health and tourism – for the provision and testing of information and communications technology on the four islands.
In January 1997, following the European Centre for Development Policy Management 10th anniversary seminar, 'An Island Gateway on the Internet: Using the Web to Facilitate Information Exchange on and among Small Islands' held in Maastricht, the Netherlands, SITC became a founder member of the Island Web Consortium (IWC) which was subsequently registered in Washington D.C. as a non-profit corporation. Twelve Directors were appointed and the Director of Habitat was elected President and Chief Executive Officer in August 1997. At the same seminar, UNDP agreed to provide financial assistance in order to establish the Small Island Developing States network (SIDSnet).
As a result of changes in local government administration, the SITC closed down in June 1999 and Habitat constructed a new website managed in conjunction with the IWC. This was officially launched at the UK Overseas Territories conference, 'A Breath of Fresh Air', held in London that year organised by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which Habitat also played a significant role in helping to plan. The website subsequently became one of only two official Content Partners for SIDSnet as well as being linked to the Commonwealth Secretariat and World Bank Small States Sections and the European Islands System of Links and Exchanges (EURISLES).
In December 1999 the Director of Habitat attended a North Atlantic Islands Programme (NAIP) Public Forum and Steering Committee meeting in Cape Breton, Canada, where Skye was approved as a new NAIP member to join Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton, Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Faroes, Aland, Isle of Man and Bermuda. The NAIP was designed to facilitate research, information exchange and shared initiatives amongst its members and Skye became directly involved with a number of transnational cultural, educational and telemedicine projects.
Habitat hosted and organised the Islands of the World VI conference in Skye, 15-21 October 2000, on behalf of the International Small Islands Studies Association (ISISA), which attracted 150 delegates from around 40 countries. With financial support from the Commonwealth Foundation, Department for International Development, European Commission and Foreign & Commonwealth Office, participants from as far afield as Grenada, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea and St Helena were able to attend and join with others in giving just over 100 academic papers or presentations divided into 12 main thematic sessions. In addition, one day was devoted to networking with 15 bodies directly involved with different aspects of island studies outlining their numerous activities. This day culminated with the signing of a MoU between Sabhal Mor Ostaig, University of the Highlands & Islands Gaelic college on Skye, and the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, committing both institutions to explore a range of shared development opportunities. This included An Tarsainn or ‘The Crossing’, which was a project to commemorate the 200th anniversary in 2003 of 600 emigrants from Skye who settled on PEI. Habitat was again directly involved in helping to plan the numerous events that included concerts, dramas, exhibitions, seminars and exchange visits.
Participants at this ISISA conference emphasised their desire once again for having an effective gateway or portal website on the Internet. As a direct result, Habitat received financial support from Highlands & Islands Enterprise and the Lighthouse Foundation based in Hamburg, Germany, to undertake a six month pre-development phase for establishing a Global Islands Network. This included the formation of a Working Group and construction of a demonstration website to illustrate the range of content resource modules that could be made available. Senior representatives from 20 international and regional organisations subsequently met at the Lighthouse Foundation offices in October 2001 and, after three days of intensive discussions and workshops, a Letter of Intent was signed by all those present agreeing that GIN should be set up as a non-profit body. The Memorandum and Articles of Association that incorporated GIN as a charitable company limited by guarantee were approved and signed at its inaugural Board meeting that took place on 27 June 2002 during the Islands of the World VII conference on Prince Edward Island. This meeting was followed immediately thereafter with the public launch of the GIN website by The Hon. Jeff Lantz, PEI Minister of Education and Attorney General.