Government trade missions have taken on a whole new meaning in the Information Age. The idea of information technology as a valuable commodity -- less tangible than widgets or crops but no less important to an economy -- has moved it to the forefront of trade discussions, leading to some interesting global partnerships.

Pennsylvania, ranked fourth in the 1998 Digital State technology report, has looked beyond regional and national borders to embark on several aggressive intergovernmental technology projects benefiting local, state and international governments and the private sector.

Linking Schools, Communities

As with many government information technology collaborations, education was the genesis for the international partnerships Pennsylvania has forged. When commonwealth officials traveled to Canada to give a presentation on their $132 million Link-to-Learn program, a three-year effort to expand the use of technology in schools, they found that Canada's SchoolNet program was so similar in philosophy that working together was natural. Like Link-to-Learn, Canada's SchoolNet program seeks to connect students to the Internet and provide 10,000 public-access points throughout Canada by 2001, to ultimately link all Canadians to the Internet.

"The whole purpose of a partnership with Canada is, quite frankly, to share with each other what our jurisdictions are doing so we learn from each other," said Larry Olson, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary for information technology, the state's chief information officer. "We don't want to replicate what's already been done, but really build on the successes and the failures."

After forming the Canada-Pennsylvania Partnership Council in 1997, the two jurisdictions started the first virtual sister-community program, in which similar towns join digitally across borders to share information and technical opportunities in the areas of government, education, health care and business. Lockhaven, Pa., and Lanark, Ontario, are the flagship communities of the program, but plans call for ultimately linking up to five communities from each region.

"We try to get similar communities with similar issues, where governments can try and build on each other," Olson said. "At the same time -- and this is our purpose in going beyond Pennsylvania -- we want to get people in Pennsylvania to understand there are global issues out there and that they are part of a global community."

To that end, Pennsylvania has emulated Canada's Digital Grass Roots program, in which small grants are given to schools to allow classes to post online content about their communities. The goal of the project is to not only to convey a community's history and uniqueness in a medium predominantly global in character, but to also give middle- and high-school students the opportunity to learn marketable technical skills in Web development, graphics design and programming. Pennsylvania officials have received nearly 400 proposals from schools throughout the commonwealth eager to participate in the program.

The Global Link

Building on the success of their educational partnership, the two governments in June joined Singapore in a high-tech digital signing of an agreement creating the Global Learning Consortium (GLC). It marked the first time governments have finalized an international agreement using digital signatures over the Internet. The consortium, which has attracted the attention of Japan, Ireland and the European Community, links classrooms in its member nations using the Internet and encourages the sharing of ideas and information on how schools in each country can make better use of technology in the classroom.

"Canada has had great success with programs such as SchoolNet, which facilitates Internet access and stimulates its applications in schools and public libraries," said Canadian Industry Minister John Manley. "This consortium provides us with an opportunity to share our experience and learn from those of our partners."

The agreement has spawned a Web site on which GLC members showcase some of the more notable learning-technology projects in their schools. A consortium-launching conference is being planned for spring, where member nations will use