Technology Knows No Boundaries

Pennsylvania forges international partnerships on education and Y2K.

/ January 31, 1999
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 interactive groupware to facilitate discussions, set the GLC's goals and determine what is needed globally to enhance educational technology.

The GLC collaborations are moving beyond joint Internet projects to include more in-depth studies of educational technology trends around the world. Under the banner of the GLC, Pennsylvania, Canada and the European Community hope to sign an agreement early this year to develop an international model on how to develop a technology index, or survey, for global comparisons of schools. The project will build on work already done in Pennsylvania, where a technology index has been developed to rate the health of technology in the commonwealth's schools. Education officials have used the index to determine which states are technology-poor, and the index has shed light on whether commonwealth funds budgeted for classroom technology are being spent as planned.

Y2K Projects

Perhaps nowhere are governments more eager to share information and strategies than on the Y2K frontier. Last year, a casual dinner party discussion in Ottawa of Y2K between Olson and Douglas Hull, director general of Industry Canada, led to the creation of The Executive Survival Guide for the Year 2000. The 18-page collaborative primer, which explains in layman's terms how executives in private industry and government can best battle the millennium bug, has been distributed to more than 1 million Canadian corporations. Another 2 million copies are on order. The guide is also available in French on the Canadian government's year-2000 Web site and is being translated into Spanish to meet increasing interest of countries in Central and South America.

To complement the survival guide, The Canada-Pennsylvania Partnership Council has collaborated on a suite of Y2K-awareness products that includes two videos, an interactive CD-ROM, a workbook for small businesses, color posters and a speaker's tool kit containing a Microsoft Power Point presentation for officials wanting to build community awareness of Y2K. Pennsylvania's Office of Information Technology Web site resembles a QVC shopping site, Olson joked, except for one major difference -- the Y2K materials are free.

And with the Y2K deadline closing rapidly, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge has offered camera-ready artwork for The Executive Survival Guide for the Year 2000 to each U.S. governor for free use in their states. As of early November, nearly a dozen states and two major U.S. corporations had agreed to sign the licensing agreement, which gives them free use of the survival guide in exchange for placing the Canada-Pennsylvania Partnership Council's logo on the cover.

Other states have responded in kind to the open dialogue. Texas agreed to let its workbook on Y2K for local governments be posted on the Pennsylvania Web site, and a similar agreement will make Colorado's workbook on the effects of Y2K on embedded technology available to all interested jurisdictions.

The Local-Global Alliance

Olson admitted that a partnership between individual states and other nations is unusual, but as competition in the global marketplace grows tougher, it makes sense for states and local governments to aggressively pursue agreements, informal or formal, if there are common goals. It's important to be open-minded if you want to keep up in a culturally diverse world, he said.

"I had never worked with anyone from Singapore, but I started to see consistent themes in health care, telemedicine, distance learning, and electronic commerce," Olson said. "And that's when it just clicked -- they have themes and directions that we want to go with, but we can add something to it."

Now, trade missions to other nations, including Ireland and Belgium, are creating new opportunities for Pennsylvania and GLC members. When it comes to intergovernmental partnerships, consortium members aren't writing off even the most
unusual alliances.

"Whether it's with a local government, another state or internationally, look for every opportunity to leverage what you're doing with somebody else, so you can grow in knowledge even faster," Olson said.

Tom Byerly is a Sacramento, Calif.- based writer. Email