Friday, June 26, 2009

Rebuilding Iraq: the role of IT staff

IT contractor Peter Moore has been held hostage in Iraq for over two years.

His plight has highlighted the dangers facing ordinary workers and civilians living and working in the country. Even aid agencies have deemed the situation too perilous, and most moved their staff out years ago.

There are 31 million Iraqis in the country, as well as thousands of contractors and military staff, including technology workers working on projects that will play a crucial role in the rebuilding of the country.

The war decimated much of the country's infrastructure, including the telecommunications network and any hope of a reliable internet.

Some restructuring work is underway, but Gartner analyst Vittorio Dorazio predicts it will be at least five years before Iraq sees any real changes.

Many would consider technology as relatively low down the list of priorities in a country that does not have enough doctors or schools. But IT will be a crucial part of improving basic living standards.

Building records and systems

IT company EMC is working in Iraq through its business partners. Mohammed Amin, regional manager for EMC Middle East, said IT is central to providing public services and standards of living.

"IT has to work in parallel with building roads and schools, and improving transport and healthcare," he said. "These developments need records and systems. You need healthcare databases, and systems are needed to determine who is eligible for new passports and citizenship, for example."

The main areas of activity are telecoms, government and the banking sector, which is now starting to re-awaken. Most telecoms investment is going into mobile communications, because landline networks are more cumbersome and expensive. The government, with help from oil revenues, is investing large amounts in basic infrastructure equipment and in archiving government information.

"There are so many documents from the past 30 years which are very important - they detail how to run the country, how to handle the security situation, how to control Iraq's borders. They need a huge archiving system," Amin said.

Full of potential

Despite the hurdles that Iraq will no doubt have to get past, there is plenty of activity and potential, according to Dorazio.

"The Iraqi IT industry is definitely growing, despite the crisis. There are small companies, but you don't see large companies. It is in a very early stage. The fighting is even now ongoing and it is very hard to provide a service when the overall infrastructure is disrupted," he said.

EMC's Amin agrees the security situation is still a problem. EMC has considered opening an office in the safer northern part of Iraq, but has had to put its plans on hold after a resurgence of violence in the past couple of months.

Progress on security is still being made. Large IT companies and consultancies, such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, do business in Iraq and transfer knowledge to the country.

The armed forces have also played a big role in training up the Iraqi security forces in all kinds of skills, ready for the UK's departure in July this year.

Lt Col Jon Cole, commander of joint forces for communications and information systems in Iraq, said, "We have assisted with training the Iraqi forces so we are not leaving them in the lurch. There is also a small British army presence that is staying in the country, at the invitation of the Iraqi government, to help with training."

The army, navy and airforce have worked in partnership with local contractors throughout their six years in the country, although the military operations have been self-contained and will have had little impact on civilians. In mid-March the information systems engineers started winding down the military IT operations in Iraq, and they expect to be finished in mid-July.

Throughout the war, IT and communications have been a central part of military operations. "It is absolutely crucial," Cole says. "More and more equipment that comes into service is technologically far superior than in previous generations. Command and control officers use large screens and advanced systems to keep track of where soldiers and vehicles are. If the IT is not working, a patrol will not go out - it is as simple as that."

Once the military has moved out, the UK government will help reconstruction efforts through the Provincial Reconstruction Team, based in Basra. There is a long way to go, but hopes are high that Iraq could one day become a technological hub in the Middle East.

"First, we need stability," says Dorazio. "But Iraq could really leapfrog other countries in terms of technology. Back offices will not be constrained by legacy systems, and people starting businesses can get the newest technology. There is a massive amount of potential."

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