Dec 31 2009

IT for, of and by the People

Photo: Mark Battrell

When politics, funding or common sense fall short of accomplishing critical goals, the federal government steps in:

  • Assist in providing wireless Internet access to a massive and desolate area — check.
  • Install telecommunications in a war-torn nation — check.
  • Contend with counterfeit medications — check.

Through three major initiatives, the government has its hand in each of these. This issue of FedTech relates these efforts’ unique information technologies approaches and their tightly woven links to people’s everyday lives.

The largest federally recognized American Indian tribe in the United Sates, the Navajo Nation represents a tremendous land mass. The 16 million acres that are the nation — straddling Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — mean that the reservation is larger than 10 of the 50 United States. Yet, until recently, most residents lacked indoor plumbing, telephone service or access to the Internet. The Navajo Nation and the government are addressing the latter two through a mesh network initiative designed to provide Nation residents with a first taste of the Internet and, in many cases, phone service. In January, the Navajo IT Department raised the first tower to provide Multiprotocol Label Switching data relay.

Beyond mere technology advancements is the potential to create a new economic foundation for business development and educational opportunities. But what is unique about this technology project is the people, as the Navajo are developing, deploying and running the new systems and services. For the full story, turn to “IT Across the Navajo Nation.”

Something similar is happening in Iraq: The State Department and the Agency for International Development spearheaded the rebuilding of the country’s network infrastructure and now have begun turning that work over to Iraqi businesses. As “Node by Node” recounts, it’s a project fraught with peril but one that has an upside. The infrastructure rebuilding team effort can quantify its success at restoring the dilapidated communications network damaged by current and past wars, as well as neglect during years of economic sanctions. Although the instability in Iraq erodes progress in many ways, there are now 1 million new telephone lines, 2,600 kilometers of fiber-optic cable and 250,000 people with access to Wi-Fi in major cities.

Finally, this issue’s cover story takes an in-depth look at efforts to deal with the growing problem of counterfeit pharmaceuticals. To stem the tide, the Food and Drug Administration champions the use of electronic pedigrees — data gathered by radio frequency identification tags on medication labels.

The RFID tags can track and trace a drug from the moment of production through its sale. So far, this effort has progressed slowly, and only a handful of products sport the tags. But the feds still view the e-pedigrees as a worthwhile approach to preventing the sale of counterfeit drugs. Read about the challenges of this effort in “Tag & Release.”

Lee Copeland

Editor in Chief