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Putting tech front and center emerged out of a recommendation to establish a central organization that would drive advancements and push for political action on technology issues. Since then, it’s come a long way.

Six years ago, the Michigan Information Technology Commission took a look at how the state fit in with the Internet revolution. It didn’t like what it saw. Although technology was making some inroads into the public and private sectors, it wasn’t enough. The governor thought more should be done to help businesses, communities, schools, and government agencies to take full advantage of technology and the Internet. emerged out of the commission’s recommendation to establish a central organization that would drive advancements and push for political action on technology issues. Katherine Willis, the organization’s president, chats about how the state’s technology landscape has changed in the last six years, and how it will keep on changing for the better.

When was founded six years ago, it had a mission to improve the quality of life of the state’s citizens through better technology implementation. How has your mission evolved since then?

In some ways, it’s stayed the same. We’ve worked to ensure that Michigan is a world leader in information technology in a way that will benefit every citizen. We’re still very focused on making sure that the right things are done by the state and that we address broad technology issues.

What has changed is that in the beginning we were more focused on the technology itself, and making sure that there was enough access. Now, our focus is on technology’s impact within various sectors themselves like education, healthcare, and government.

It’s been an interesting change, because it’s been brought on as much by social evolution as by technology advancement. When the organization started, Internet use was at about 14 to 18 percent for the state, and now it’s closer to 80 percent after only six years. People are much more tech savvy now, and when you have that kind of penetration you begin to see opportunities.

How have your efforts affected the state’s businesses, especially smaller companies that may need assistance in implementing technology?

In the past, technology was an add-on to the way they did business, not everything had to be on a computer. They just had to make sure they delivered their business services in ways that suited their clients and customers. But now, with this level of Internet use, companies have to use technology effectively, it’s mandatory.

What does for small businesses is to focus on the state’s policy issues, because that benefits everybody. By making sure that high-speed broadband is widely available, it fosters a competitive environment that small businesses need to survive and succeed.

What have been some obstacles to rolling out high-speed broadband in Michigan?

Ours is a peninsula state, which proves to be a challenge. An Internet provider wants to go from one point to another, like railroad. But, with a peninsula, it’s difficult because you can’t just go from A to B the way you can in other areas. So, we’ve focused on getting broadband rolled out to all areas, because we think those businesses and individuals should have the resources they need. We believe that just as the road system was critical to making all parts of this country accessible to shipping, high-speed Internet is critical for enabling commerce.

Beyond getting Internet access to all parts of the state, what other initiatives are uppermost on the organization’s to-do list?

One area that we’re really beginning to work on is the issue of privacy. The state has some outstanding policies in the area of Internet security, and we’re looking at how privacy would fit into that efficiently. We’ve just started talking about how we’re going to find out the needs of our citizens and businesses. We want to see how they feel about e-commerce and interacting with the government online. We’ll also be asking businesses about their concerns surrounding privacy. Based on all of that, we’ll be thinking about what policies to put in place that will benefit everybody.

What kinds of challenges do you see in terms of getting more government agencies and offices online?

Certainly, the state sincerely wants to offer all kinds of government services online. But agencies are facing constrained budgets as well, and that’s heightened by having to maintain dual systems; they have to use both paper and electronic processes, because not everyone in the state is electronically connected.

Local governments have an even bigger challenge, because in some of the municipalities, technology is done primarily by volunteers. I’m not sure if all of Michigan’s municipalities need to be online, but all counties should be. For some, it’s a matter of leadership. The more I work with the organization the more I become aware that to implement technology effectively, you don’t need someone who’s a tech wizard. You need a leader. And I don’t think we have uniform leadership in all the counties in the state.

Service offers IT news briefings has launched a new service to help local government officials and interested community members stay on top of the latest developments in information technology in Michigan. The Michigan Community IT News Briefings describe what communities across the state are doing in information technology within the education, health care, nonprofit, and public sectors.

The organization tracks local news in Michigan’s communities and delivers the news briefings to your e-mail inbox once every two weeks. The briefings include local IT news, announcements about recent reports, studies, and surveys, and alerts to upcoming IT-related events.

While the briefings are targeted at local government officials, the list is open to anyone who is interested in staying on top of what’s happening across Michigan’s cities, villages, townships, and counties in the area of Information & Communication Technology. To subscribe or unsubscribe, simply email Carrie Hammerman at [email protected]

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