I'll get to the point: I propose that we resolve the key digital weaknesses in our country's technological infrastructure in dealing with future terrorist attacks and boost the economy by tapping out-of-work dot-commers and hard-hit companies in the sector.
Let's call it the eWPA.
It's news to no one that the dot-com bubble burst and left us with millions of unemployed people. As it happens, most of these people have the skills necessary to participate in the implementation of large, complex technology. Not only could these New Economy foot soldiers develop these applications more quickly than any government agency or line item contractor, they could also do it for less money.
These same millions now have a different view of what it means to be American, and like many others felt relatively helpless in the wake of the terrorist attacks. They may not be doctors, police or firefighters, but they still have the skills to help.
In my mind, the most obvious infrastructure hole is the networking of intelligence organizations with the rest of the world. There are people who are actively plotting, or suspected to be plotting, terrorist attacks. The U.S. intelligence community has a pretty good idea who many of them are, and is continually updating terrorist "watch lists."
Yet, these people come to the United States and rent cars, buy plane, train and bus tickets, purchase cell phones and even secure licenses to fly large commercial aircraft and haul hazardous chemicals by the truckload without raising a single red flag. The problem is that the intelligence agencies with the lists aren't effectively communicating with the organizations who need them, and vice versa.
Yes, building an application that would facilitate this kind of communication is a huge job, and, yes, every member of the team working on it would have to go through a rigorous screening process and security clearance. But it is possible and would measurably improve the problem without infringing on the illusion of personal privacy.
Also, addressing less obvious needs would have immediate impact on those working close to any future tragedies. A friend of mine volunteers by coordinating massage therapists who are donating bodywork to rescue workers in New York City. We're talking hundreds of volunteers doing thousands of massages per day.
The scheduling is practically done on 3-by-5 cards and taxicab receipts. These unpaid soothers don't have the time, resources or training to implement sophisticated online scheduling. Finding someone to volunteer to do it is possible, but finding a group of professionals to build and maintain it and a suite of other relevant tools would be better. The suite of tools could be used by many more organizations and coordination could be centralized by the Red Cross or, say, the eWPA.
But my goal here is not to suggest projects. I don't even think that I'm the ideal eWPA evangelist or leader. And no, I'm not just looking for a new job.
There's a great opportunity here and I think it would be a shame if we missed it. Larry Ellison said he would offer up Oracle as a database if anyone wanted to make a national identity card system. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Andrew Rasiej (of Mouse.org and the Digital Club Network) are working on a civil defense initiative that uses American tech workers to set up networks on the fly and get information flowing during catastrophes.
Maybe the WPA/eWPA analogy isn't perfect. The former is closer to working welfare, the latter is closer to a paramilitary pocket protector posse. But if we pool our skills and contacts, keep it simple and think big, we just might make a difference.