World looks to reap IT benefits

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To further extend information technology's reach, members of a global industry consortium will convene in Johannesburg, South Africa, later this month to discuss how they can help more countries reap the benefits of IT.

The World Information Technology and Services Alliance (WITSA) has a global focus, as stories in its newsletter attest. Titles include "China's IT Industry Ranks 2nd in the World" and "Cyber Cafés Targeted in Vietnam's New Net Controls."

Members who attend WITSA's Steering Committee and Public Policy Committee meetings Sept. 27 to 29 will discuss the consortium's legislative agenda for 2005, exploring such issues as Internet governance and security, said Allen Miller, WITSA's executive director.

"It's an opportunity for people to get together [and] work out any differences we may have globally on IT and to share and learn," Miller said. The meetings will be hosted by members of Information Industry South Africa.

Senegal, Uganda, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are among the recent recruits to WITSA, whose members also host the World Congress on IT. The presence of developing countries within the group's ranks signals changing times, WITSA officials said.

IT's reach is expanding rapidly worldwide. "It used to be the developed countries that got together and talked about IT," Miller said. "Now it's developing countries. I've seen a real shift over the years."

"The developing economies have realized IT is important," he added. "Not all the governments have figured it out, but the private sector" is applying pressure.

To help more countries capitalize on IT's capabilities, WITSA officials will brainstorm about "what can be done in a positive but nonregulatory manner," said Harris Miller, the consortium's president and president of the Information Technology Association of America.

"We have been focusing on government procurement best practices, transparency [and] outcomes," Harris Miller said. "Every country in the world wants to be part of this IT economy."

Of course, all of the information sharing and good intentions in the world can't solve the problem of not enough access in developing countries. "You need to have a minimum infrastructure," said Michel Laguerre, professor of African American studies and director of the University of California's Berkeley Center for Globalization and IT. "You need to be able to plug your own computer in. Electricity is not available."

In the Dominican Republic, for example, Laguerre said electricity recently was available for only four hours a day. In Haiti, his birthplace, computers are commonplace but remain off for lack of power, he said. Computers are "like house furniture, something to show, not to use," he said.

Laguerre said even governments with well-designed Web sites often get most of their hits from tourists or potential visitors. The use of IT "is spreading, but it is spreading slowly," he said.

Industry officials said that with a basic infrastructure in place, countries can begin to benefit from IT. For instance, they can quickly install wireless technologies, locating towers in choice locations and saving money that otherwise would have been spent on bringing land lines to rural areas, Harris Miller said.

Laguerre agreed that IT offers great opportunities, especially in the area of education, if electricity, computers and training are available. "I cannot think of any country where the government and people are not using IT for some purpose," he said.

"The digital divide every day is a digital opportunity," Harris Miller said. Millions of people in China have become wireless phone users, and India's IT industry has been booming for the past two years, he said.

India's success raises the thorny subject of American jobs heading overseas. Harris Miller said global sourcing is not a big topic of discussion among consortium members. "Clearly, it's an issue, [but] it isn't as big a topic" as others, he said.

WITSA members prefer talking about the possibilities for using IT in areas such as health, training and commerce. "While we continue in this country to be focused on the United States, the reality is the future of IT is in 96 percent of the [world] that isn't in the U.S.," Harris Miller said. "Anything we can do to accelerate their IT helps the U.S."

The worldwide advance of technology has helped federal officials manage their workforce and keep in touch with far-flung employees, said John Palguta, vice president for policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service.

In the past several years, the Internet has really taken hold, Allen Miller said. "The private sector is realizing they need to push government public policy so they can take advantage of it," he said.

But Laguerre warned that capitalizing on IT in developing countries will require investment. "You cannot just move computers around," he said. Instead, economies must be developed, he said. "Even in the U.S., [dispersing] computers at this point is still a headache."

Gathering in Africa for the first time, WITSA members have in mind the same goals of financial growth. "We've been expanding our reach into more developing countries," Harris Miller said. "It's very important that we have our meetings in locations that are using IT to move forward economically."

Lisagor is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

A global gathering

Founded in 1978, the World Information Technology and Services Alliance (WITSA) will hold its semiannual meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, Sept. 27-29.

WITSA is a consortium of 60 IT industry associations, including the Information Technology Association of America. Members will spend much of their time at the meeting discussing IT's global potential.

According to a draft program, members will attend an IT mentor's alliance workshop, a public policy committee session that will provide updates on issues such as grid computing and offshore services, and a briefing by Information Industry South Africa.

IISA, a group representing IT, communications and electronics industries in South Africa, is hosting the meeting.

Keynote speakers from the South African government will deliver talks on regional IT initiatives. A report on the consortium's meeting held earlier this year in Athens, Greece, will be presented.

WITSA members also are planning an evening tour of wildlife areas and a gala dinner.

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