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A few minutes with...Patrick McGovern

Patrick McGovern had already defined his let’s-try-it approach to technology publishing and was a successful global publisher when he started Federal Computer Week in 1987. Since 1964, the founder and chairman of International  Data Group has been instrumental in launching more than 300 magazines and newspapers in 85 countries.

McGovern’s considerable publishing fortune has allowed him to move into philanthropy. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened the McGovern Institute for Brain Research in November 2005 with a $350 million gift from McGovern and his wife, Lore Harp McGovern.

FCW recently caught up with McGovern to ask a few questions.

What made you interested in starting a publication about the government and computers?

McGovern: At the time we started, it was a $25 billion-a-year market. It was the largest single sector of IT spending, and it had unique procurement rules and regulations. So we thought, “Here is a community of people who are buying lots of technology, who have shared interests in terms of the Federal Supply Schedule  and other rules, and who would appreciate a publication that not only kept them up to date on the technology but also on how to procure it and use it effectively in the government.”

We started an events business shortly after starting the magazine because we thought this was a community of special shared interests. A publication was one form of communicating, but we also encouraged people to come together in meetings to learn best practices from each other.

Did others see the government as an untapped market, or were you kind of a lone wolf in this decision?

McGovern: Government Computer News had started a little bit earlier [in 1982], but we felt we had a much broader catch basin for information. We had 2,200 editors and reporters around the world to gather information about new technology developments and bring those to the editors at Federal Computer Week. At that time, Computerworld, InfoWorld and PC World had started. We had IDG News Service that gathered information from our publications around the world. We had lots of people who could send information about new developments in other countries.

Let’s switch to the philanthropy phase of your career. How did you
and your wife become involved in brain research?

McGovern: We’ve been very interested in how the brain works. In the information business, we’re trying to get information into the brain. We’re interested in framing and structuring information in ways that make it easy to comprehend, easy to store, and easy to retrieve and use. It’s been frustrating that we actually know so little about how the brain works.

In the latter half of the 1990s, we saw that the tools for studying the brain had made tremendous advances. Supercomputers could do neural network analysis. We had computer-based magnets that could do functional magnetic resonance imaging, for example, and we could see what was actually happening in the brain during various thought processes. We had single-neuron recording devices and computer analysis to find out what was happening in one neuron or adjacent
neurons. We thought, “Boy, with these tools, tremendous advances could be made in understanding how the brain works — how we learn and communicate — and how we can reduce conflict and make a more peaceful and safe world for everybody.”

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