How can IT save the world?

Thousands of delegates mull how to bring technology to the world's people while preserving their privacy and keeping them healthy. Photos: Changing the world

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
5 min read
AUSTIN, Texas--For all the complaining that the developed world does about BlackBerry addiction and the blue screen of death, sometimes it's important to remember that billions of people around the world have no idea what you're talking about.

The rise of information technology has undoubtedly changed the world, according to speakers and panelists gathered here this week for the 2006 World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT). But it has not changed everyone's world, and there are still plenty of places that IT has yet to impact.

The WCIT gathers every two years to debate what it considers the most pressing technology issues that affect the entire globe. This year, it and the World Information Technology and Services Alliance (WITSA) chose access to technology, IT in heath care, and privacy and security as the hot-button issues of the conference.

On Thursday, the 2,000-plus delegates from 80 different countries will vote on various proposals made during the conference. The results of that vote, which will be announced Friday, will be implemented as official recommendations of the WCIT and the WITSA. Delegates can then go back to their home countries with official recommendations on what needs to be done to improve IT in their home countries.

Unlike many sessions at the United Nations, most panelists seemed very much in agreement on the issues discussed. Private industry and governments have to work together, because no group can solve these problems on their own, they said. Global standards need to be implemented so programs and policies that work can be implemented in different regions. And information technology has the power to change the world for the better, which isn't that far-fetched a concept to emerge from a gathering of some of the world's elite IT executives and pundits.

"Some ask, 'How can we afford to do this?' I say, 'We can't afford not to do this,'" Hector Ruiz, CEO of Advanced Micro Devices, said during his keynote speech kicking off the conference.

Photos: Onstage at WCIT

But while its heart is in the right place, the IT industry is also thinking with its wallet. Only 10 percent of people with an annual income of less than $25,000 own a PC, said Paul Otellini, Intel's chief executive officer, during his keynote address Wednesday. A faulty 50-cent seal on a shipping container has the potential to disrupt the global economy, said Joseph McGrath, CEO of Unisys. Companies, health care institutions and patients could save millions of dollars with automated health care records, said Tommy Thompson, the former secretary of Health and Human Services, who is an adviser to the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions.

Improving access to PCs and the Internet is a frequent topic these days, with MIT's Nicholas Negroponte pitching a $100 PC for developing nations under his One Laptop Per Child plan. Microsoft's Bill Gates has touted a Microsoft plan for a cell phone-like basic PC, while Otellini and Ruiz discussed their own projects Wednesday. Otellini's Eduwise design is targeted at students, while AMD wants to put Personal Internet Communicators in homes.

Yeongi Son, president and CEO of the Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion, had a better perspective than most on this topic. South Korea is one of the more wired countries in the world, with 72 percent of the population online at broadband speeds, Son said. His government-funded agency has set up access centers in rural areas of the country, and distributed refurbished PCs to the poor, he said.

Governments should start using technology themselves, making it a priority to embrace technology within their organizations and introduce public-sector workers to the possibilities of information technology, said Don Tapscott, CEO of a think tank called New Paradigm. And easing strict regulations on telecommunications helps to speed adoption of new technologies, said Steve Rohleder, Accenture's chief operating officer.

But as more and more people jump on the Internet, it's crucial to protect their privacy from identity thieves and their data from hackers, Unisys' McGrath said. "Normally the government trails, but this is an opportunity for government to lead," he said.

Things like smart cards and RFID tracking are part of McGrath's vision for a more secure digital world. He pointed out the Malaysian government's embrace of smart cards that store passport data, banking information and health records as a model for how governments can move their citizens forward into the digital age.

But at the same time, he cited the need to make consumer privacy advocates, who generally aren't fond of technologies like RFID, part of the decision-making process. Unisys proposed that countries adopt global standards allowing RFID passports to work in the same manner from country to country. But Michael Capellas, the former CEO of Compaq and MCI, suggested that RFID standards might evolve more naturally in vertical industries, like transportation or health care, rather across borders or set by governments.

A rapidly aging population also has WCIT delegates thinking about ways that the IT industry can make the health care system better, which unfortunately isn't a new thought. "These things seem to move at glacier speeds," said Louis Burns, vice president and general manager of Intel's Digital Health group. "There's millions of people who can say no, and only a few that can say yes."

The debate has to be framed in the losses that are preventable with better use of technology within the health care industry, said Richard Granger, director general for IT with the U.K.'s National Health Service. The NHS has implemented a bold--and expensive--plan to modernize the U.K.'s health care system, which has received criticism because of setbacks caused by the adjustments to new technologies, he said.

Around 90,000 people died in the U.S. last year as the result of medical errors caused by fatigue or sloppiness that could have been prevented with better technology, Thompson said. Framed in that light, people need to understand the cost of not switching to more productive systems, Granger said.

The lack of standards is also a problem in this arena, said Karen Bell, acting deputy national coordinator for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. "The reality is that a good many of the problems have to do with lack of coordination between one system or another," she said. Records kept by one doctor won't necessarily show up in a different doctor's record-keeping system, never mind across different countries.

Large employers like Intel need to press the health care industry to mend its ways, Thompson said. The Australian government, however, has decided to move ahead in developing its own specifications, said Ian Reinecke, chief executive officer of the National E-Health Transition Authority. "Anybody who waits for the standards bodies before implementing e-health will be waiting a long time," he said.

Solutions to these problems are within reach, but more effort is required from organizations around the world before real progress can be made, according to participants. The WCIT delegates "are in an amazing position to be at the hub and source of using IT to transform society," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, said in his keynote.