Are we headed for a global Y2K crisis?
(IDG) -- Up in the observer's gallery of the United Nations' Trusteeship Council, the prophet of the apocalypse looked relaxed. Unperturbed, even. "This is enormously reassuring to me, that delegates from 120 countries have come here to talk about Y2K," said Peter de Jager, the Canadian technology consultant who has been the world's foremost consciousness-raiser when it comes to the millennium bug. "I think we've averted the worst of the dangers facing us. It's good to see this many governments working on it."
De Jager was at the United Nations Dec. 11, 1998, for the first-ever National Y2K Coordinators Meeting, organized by Ambassador Ahmad Kamal of Pakistan, chairman of the United Nations Working Group on Informatics. The one-day session brought together Y2K coordinators from countries as disparate as Azerbaijan, Iceland, Libya, St. Kitts, the United States and Uruguay. Almost two-thirds of the United Nations' 185 member nations were in attendance, a percentage that pleased Kamal, considering that he'd given the delegates only eight weeks' notice. (U.N. observers say it usually takes one or two years to put together such an inclusive conference.)
Much of the content of the day's presentations was basic Y2K strategy, highlighting testing, contingency planning and crisis management and emphasizing the critical interconnections between organizations and nations. But several sessions, closed to the press, did single out countries lagging in their Y2K efforts. A representative of the International Civil Aviation Union, for example, rattled off a list of countries that had not yet responded to the organization's surveys about air traffic control systems and might be targeted for official sanctions.
Perhaps the meeting's biggest accomplishment, though, was a social one: putting names with faces and distributing a directory of Y2K coordinators and their contact information. That way, coordinators will be able to form their own regional working groups. "One of the great goals of this meeting was to have people know each other and be able to communicate directly," said John Koskinen, chair of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion. "We don't have time for the normal diplomatic procedures."
Y2K as a global virus
Ambassador Kamal's informatics committee has been addressing Y2K issues relevant to the United Nations and its member nations since 1996. But it was only last year that he realized few member nations were talking with their neighbors and trading partners about Y2K.
"Y2K, like a virus, can jump across [borders] because of the interconnectedness of computers," Kamal said. "This meeting has a single-point agenda: Y2K. We need to explore all the nooks and crannies of this particular problem." Several countries, according to Kamal, had already started working with others in their region to confront issues like trade, telecommunications, banking transfers and power. For example, European nations like Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands are all connected to the same electrical grid and are working together to prevent dominolike failures.
While electrical power was a particularly charged topic at the conference, several other sectors were on the hot list because of their interwoven nature. Maritime shipping is one area that, according to Koskinen, has not yet received enough attention; he noted that about 95 percent of the goods imported into the United States enter by ship, and if ships and ports aren't compliant, that flow could be interrupted. Telecommunications and financial services were also discussed at length. So was national defense: What if the systems that watch for military incursions go haywire, launching missiles in error? A representative of the U.S. Department of Defense assured delegates during a closed session that missiles default to "off," not "on," if something goes wrong.
Some delegates expressed concern that citizens, fearing records of their bank accounts would be wiped out because of the year 2000 problem, would withdraw their assets and essentially stash them under a mattress. During the closed session, a representative from the Federal Reserve suggested that all the countries present may want to consider printing more currency notes in advance. The possibility of runs on banks, he seemed to be saying, is a real one. "You don't want to have a situation [in your country] where you have no currency notes," said Kamal.
Some question that strategy, though. First, distributing extra currency can result in inflation. And second, it can signal to the citizenry that removing money from bank accounts is prudent, said another meeting attendee, Howard Rubin, CEO of Long Island, New York-based Rubin Systems Inc.
Others suggested that more comprehensive crisis management plans would be necessary on a national level. How might citizens react to power outages or interruptions in the food supply? "The specter of public panic has been raised by several publications, and many stories in the press indicate that a number of countries may be developing plans to handle civil disorder or panic—from massive cash withdrawals from banks to looting," said Joseph Connor, the United Nations' under-secretary-general for management, in an address to the assembly. Accordingly, government agencies responsible for aid in emergencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Association, need to be prepared.
Private and public cooperation
At a press conference the day before the meeting, seven delegates gathered with Kamal and Koskinen to discuss how their countries had been handling Y2K. One issue they raised was that, in most parts of the world, there has not yet been enough cooperation between the public and private sectors.
"They're not working as closely as they should," said Kamal. "The private sector is not even working with itself. There is a curtain of secrecy. It may be because of fear of lawsuits or loss of competitive edge. But the government sector must work with the civil sector and private sector to solve this problem."
Don Cruickshank, head of Action 2000, the British government's Y2K campaign, said his committee includes executives from the private sector. Carlos Jarque, chairman of Mexico's Year 2000 National Conversion Commission, said that in his country, universities offer Y2K training courses for executives of small- and medium-size businesses free of charge. In South Africa, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange requires companies to disclose their Y2K status—or else they will be delisted. Additionally, the country has a national operations room that aggregates information, sent electronically, on the private sector's Y2K progress.
The plan for 1999
While Kamal left open the possibility of a follow-up national coordinators meeting, it's likely that much of the cooperation between countries in 1999 will take place on a regional level rather than at another international meeting at the United Nations.
Rubin suggested another kind of conclave. He would like to see a smaller-scale coordinators meeting take place in the United States. "I'd like to see Koskinen have a convocation of all the people working on Y2K at state and local government agencies," Rubin said. Rubin has also proposed a Y2K "Peace Corps" of consultants, experts and programmers who could volunteer assistance to countries around the world that are encountering difficulty in combating the millennium bug.
For most of the delegates, it was time to return noses to grindstones once the conference ended. Some delegates were fretting about the amount of work left to do in just more than a year. But others were noticing silver linings, especially as they related to weather conditions at the turn of the century. "Remember, in January 2000 it will be winter in the northern hemisphere," said Rodrigo Moraga Guerrero, the Republic of Chile's coordinator for international cooperative issues on Y2K, smirking slightly. "But in our hemisphere, it will be summer." No one disputed, though, that there was still a daunting amount of work to do; for many of the delegates, attending the U.N. summit was their first duty as a Y2K national coordinator.
Back at his home base in Brampton, Ontario, de Jager was still adjusting to speaking about Y2K in a mellow tone. "My tense has changed," he says. "If we hadn't fixed this, we would've had catastrophic consequences. Yesterday most countries weren't doing anything. Today they're working on it, and a lot of work can get done in a year."
Scott Kirsner, a Boston-based writer, is working on a series of articles for CIO on the Y2K problem.
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