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U.S. Project Brings Information Technology to Iraq

Includes contributions of computerized medical libraries

By Kathryn McConnell
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Through an innovative public-private partnership, the State Department is helping to bring modern information technology (IT) to the people of Iraq.

One of the project's first accomplishments was the recent delivery of four medical databases on CD-ROM and networked computers to four key medical institutions in Baghdad, the first healthcare aid project in post-war Iraq, according to Gary Selnow, executive director of WiRED International, one of the project's partners who went to Iraq.

The facilities -- three teaching hospitals and a spinal cord treatment center -- have lacked modern medical information resources for decades, said Jim Mollen, director of State's U.S. Global Technology Corps (USGTC), who also traveled to the country.

The first information center was officially launched in late June, Mollen said. Immediately after the launching ceremony, excited physicians sat down to use the new computer resources, Selnow added.

The project's next phase is to bring computer-based medical resources to other regions of Iraq, Mollen said. Additionally, as infrastructure improves, the computer networks will be connected to the Internet, Selnow said.

Future phases also will bring IT equipment and training to youth and higher education centers, Mollen said. In focusing on youth, he said, "We may be facing a unique window of opportunity to have a meaningful impact on Iraqi society for decades to come." The Ba'ath Party used the country's youth centers as major propaganda tools, he said.

"Moving quickly is important in post-war development," Selnow said.

The "medical information centers" of six or more workstations per site offer comprehensive "e-libraries" of approximately 110 CDs containing information compiled from government sources, universities, pharmaceutical companies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The core database was first used in recent years in Central Europe and Africa and will be periodically updated, Selnow said. The computer systems are equipped with special batteries that allow the machines to safely turn off if the local electricity supply is interrupted, he said.

"This project will meet the [Iraqi] medical community's information needs with speed and substance. During the past several decades, professionals staffing the Iraqi health care system and medical students at all levels of study have been denied unfettered access to information about health care developments widely available in open societies," Selnow said.

"In addition to the infusion of information that will contribute to a rapid improvement of health care in Iraq, this project will demonstrate the generosity and good will of Americans and offer a tangible display of our abiding concern for the Iraqi people," he said.

Selnow also provided training to the Iraqis who will staff the medical information centers and set up a project monitoring system. The centers are in physically-secure rooms, he said.

Additionally, the team delivered satellite broadcast radios to the ministries of Youth and Higher Education and to the Iraq Media Network, successor to the former Ministry of Information. The radios give the reformed ministries access to world news outlets the Ba'ath Party had banned such as BBC, Mollen said. They also will be able to access Radio Sawa, the new U.S.-sponsored Arabic-language station targeting youth audiences.

"The goal of the USGTC is to recruit skilled Americans to serve in a voluntary capacity to implement, develop and foster information technology in developing and emerging nations in a manner that encourages the free flow of information," Mollen said.

Mollen and Selnow said they hope other agencies of the federal government -- such as the Department of Health and Human Services and U.S Agency for International Development -- will be interested in providing funding for future phases.

USGTC is a program of the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP).