Powell recalls State Department tech transformation

While he was Secretary of State, department replaced archaic with new machines and high-speed Internet access.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Former Secretary of State Colin Powell captivated the crowd here Friday, the final day of the World Congress on Information Technology, by reminiscing about watching the information society emerge during his public service.

Powell served as the national security adviser under former President Ronald Reagan and as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before his most recent stint as secretary of State. In his mind, he said, the information society began with the fall of communism.

As a witness to and participant in the emerging information age, after a year-and-a-half in the State Department, Powell said he quickly found its computer systems to be inadequate to meet the modern-day needs of its visa program. At the time, the visa-applicant database was incompatible with law enforcement databases to perform thorough background checks.

Under his leadership, the department replaced its outdated Wang computers with 44,251 Internet-capable computers with high-speed access in its consulate offices and throughout the department.

He further tried to send the message to the department to become "hardwired digital" and directed his team to update the Web site, particularly pages with country-by-country information, on a daily basis. At the time, they were updated every three months, to which he responded: "You don't understand. We no longer live in a lunar environment; we live in a transactional one."

"When I look at world," Powell said, "I see not a battlefield but a playing field."

But as other nations try to become players in the digital age, some people working in emerging nations question whether efforts to bridge the "digital divide" between the technology haves and have-nots are moving in the right direction.

At the conference this week, Advanced Micro Devices, Intel and Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discussed plans to build low-cost computers for children in the developing world. "When I listened to the presentations here," Ibrahim Kaliisa of Uganda said he wondered whether the companies are talking to each other. Kaliisa serves as special adviser on information and communication technology to the president.

"If truly we can understand these programs in that part of the world, how come these leaders who are announcing these initiatives aren't talking to each other?" he asked.

C.K. Prahalad, a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan, further questioned whether the focus of Internet connectivity should be on computers or something else.

Teresa Peters, the senior program officer for International Library Initiatives at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said people in developing nations are not "clamoring" for computers; rather, they want cell phones. Organizations need computers the most, she added.

"Many of the great initiatives don't come to much" unless they are integrated into the local society, Prahalad said.

Peters' recipe for successful integration of information technology into developing societies is "small, simple, local and cheap." "If we don't localize, it doesn't work," she said.