Who's winning the tech race?

Ohio may be the tortoise in the dot-com race, compared to the hares we've watched take a dive on the stock markets during the past few months.

Who would suspect that Ohio, sole among Midwestern states in "flyover" country, is home to four "cybercities" — one of only six states so endowed, according to AeA. Today, economic developers throughout the Midwest are fielding calls from California companies in search of locations with room for growth, ample power, fresh water and a new ingredient — "connectedness."

Visionaries and futurists say that the information revolution is constructing a new, networked world, in which everyone, everywhere is connected to everything. In this world, computing will be pervasive — gadgets from simple home appliances to the continuous glucose monitors used by diabetics will be connected to the network.

For states, regions, cities and localities concerned about their place in this brave new world, the currency of competition in the decades to come will be the breadth, depth and pervasiveness of connections — connectedness — to the network, because communication is the lifeblood of business. Communications capacity must be reliable, diverse, redundant and fail-safe. The question for communities is: How do we know we are ready for this new, networked world?

During the past 50 years, we have developed a robust set of tools with which to measure the adequacy of infrastructure: our highway networks, the capacity of our airports, the peak power requirements we can support, and the quality of our water and sewer networks.

The Computer Systems Policy Project (www.cspp.org) has developed a comprehensive series of benchmarks for communities to use to assess their readiness for global e-commerce and a new, networked world. Those benchmarks focus on several critical areas: network capacity, availability and quality; access to critical services; public access; and key areas ripe for networked applications, such as health care and government services.

Using the project's benchmarks, states such as Ohio and Maryland, and regional urban centers such as Tucson, Ariz., and Fort Collins, Colo., have developed their own assessment efforts to measure their connectedness.

In each case, those efforts have been undertaken to promote investments in information infrastructure, position the debate over the digital divide, spur new business innovation or provide valuable information to state and private-sector leaders developing agendas to advance a region's information technology strategy.

For example, through its assessment process, Ecom Ohio (www.ecom-ohio.org), Ohio has built a strong, sure understanding of the ways in which the information revolution will transform our traditional sectors of economic strength — automotive, transportation and logistics, agriculture and financial services. A tortoise, indeed.

However, the groundbreaking work of these pioneering communities is less useful than it might be if comparable data for other states — or regional or national averages — existed. At the federal level, national performance indicators and benchmarks for a "networked world" have not yet been developed, nor is standard data being collected on a consistent, nonproprietary basis. At the state and local level, the complexity of the effort seems daunting.

It is a legitimate role of government to standardize the measurement of data about this new driver of economic development, and ensure open access to it.

During the next decade, regions, states and the federal government will be taking policy actions that will affect the continued growth and development of the new, networked world and unleash its transformational potential for many traditional sectors of the economy. Doing so in the absence of critical objective data will slow progress and impede constructive action for communities struggling to define their place in the networked world.

We urgently need a national database of comparative data that will provide state-to-state and regional comparisons and from which findings will be regularly disseminated. Let us join the tortoises in this race so that states and regions can learn from one another and begin to take shared action to overcome the critical digital divides occurring in our economies.

Sabety is director of the Technology Policy Group at the Ohio Supercomputer Center, Columbus, Ohio.


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