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May 31, 2006

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Welcome to the May 31, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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RAD Lab Wins Backing From Five Major IT Firms
UC Berkeley News (05/30/06) Moore, Theresa

The University of California, Berkeley, has announced that IBM, Hewlett-Packard, NTT, Nortel, and Oracle are partnering with the university's Reliable, Adaptive, and Distributed (RAD) systems laboratory (RAD Lab), with each pledging up to $170,000 in annual contributions over the next five years. The partnership illustrates both the importance of the RAD Lab's work on developing the next generation of Internet design tools and the changing dynamic of long-term university research funding. "Until recently, federal grants from the Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation covered research costs for large projects such as this," said ACM President David Patterson, founding director of the RAD Lab. "But reductions in government funding of information technology research led us to seek alternative funding sources." The RAD Lab is trying to adapt new discoveries in machine learning to manage the vast, distributed computing systems required by data-intensive Internet companies. The lab is developing software to automate the time-consuming tasks of creating and maintaining these systems. "System failures and security breaches are facts of life, so the most practical solution is to focus on fast detection and recovery from failures, as well as on immediate detection and isolation or containment of security breaches," Patterson said. "We hope to automate that with statistical machine learning." Any code produced by the RAD Lab will be freely available to the public under the Berkeley Software Distribution License. The sponsor companies will dispatch consultants to advise the center's activities, though none will actually work at the lab. Patterson says the companies will benefit from observing the development process, and will be able to guide the researchers by presenting obstacles that could arise when the technology is put to commercial use.
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Debating the Bugs of High-Tech Voting
Washington Post (05/30/06) P. A15; Goldfarb, Zachary A.

As midterm elections near, the debate centering on the security of e-voting systems is heating up as voting machine vendors and voting rights activists clash over the severity of a recently discovered vulnerability. The vulnerability, discovered in a Diebold machine several weeks ago in Utah, would enable anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of computer programming to manipulate the code and alter votes in just a few minutes time, security researchers claim. California and Pennsylvania issued a warning to all counties in those states that use the Diebold machines, though the degree of the threat remains a point of sharp disagreement. David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, was shocked when he found out about the threat exposed in Utah, and echoed the "frequently expressed opinion that this is the worst vulnerability we have ever seen." Diebold counters that the vulnerability was a product of design, that it is there to enable the machines to easily receive software upgrades, and that a person could only tamper with election results if given unrestricted access to the machines. E-voting systems came into widespread use after the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, which was passed in the wake of the disastrous 2000 presidential election, but electronic machines do not improve the reliability of voting process without a manual paper trail, voting rights advocates argue. While it has never been proven that ballots have been manipulated in an actual election, numerous votes have been delayed by flaws in the technology. The federal Election Assistance Commission, created to assist in HAVA implementation at the state level, claims that it is in the process of improving the election-system certification process, though voting-rights groups in several states have been pursuing legal action to halt the purchase of new electronic systems. For information on ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.
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Senate Immigration Bill Raises H-1B Limit
IDG News Service (05/30/06) Gross, Grant

Tucked within the Senate immigration reform bill that has become the focal point of a contentious national debate is a provision calling for an expansion of the number of H-1B visas allotted annually to highly skilled foreign workers. Passed by the Senate on Thursday, the bill would raise the annual H-1B cap from 65,000 to 115,000, but it has come under fire from House Republicans who claim that it takes a soft stance on illegal immigration. Technology companies have been calling for more H-1B visas for some time, claiming that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified U.S. workers. By passing the bill, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates credited the Senate with having taken a "critical step forward in its important work to ensure that our nation remains the global leader in technology innovation." A group working on behalf of U.S. IT workers claims that the H-1B program is fraught with abuses, and that companies pay H-1B workers below their market value. "The program is basically broken and can easily be manipulated," said Ron Hira of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "Until it's fixed, it makes no sense to increase the cap." Despite clearing the Senate, the bill faces stiff opposition from Republican lawmakers and an uncertain future.
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Outward Bound for Robots
Technology Review (05/31/06) Graham-Rowe, Duncan

Scientists have tested navigation software based on the hippocampus of the human brain in a self-driven robotic car. The system allows the robot to take "cognitive fingerprints" of its environment so that it can explore new places while building a living memory. In testing, the robotic vehicle, complete with a laser range finder and omnidirectional camera, successfully navigated more than one and a half kilometers in an urban environment before it got lost. The system has also been put to the kidnapping test, where an indoor robot is "blindfolded," taken to an unfamiliar location, and left to then find its way home. The kidnapping test raises the problem of simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), an area of increasing importance as robots begin to take on more autonomous functionality. The difficulty arises when trying to create a map that will help a robot navigate an area that it is still exploring, which requires the robot to map foreign terrain while simultaneously updating its own position. "To localize the robot, a map is necessary, and to update a map, the position of the mobile robot is needed," said Adriana Tapus, a roboticist at the University of Southern California who designed the system. The sensor measurements also carry a degree of inherent uncertainty, which can throw off the accuracy of the maps. Tapus' technique mimics the way that people navigate by culling together raw data from the robot's sensors, such as corners and colors, and combining them into a basic description, or fingerprint, about the location. Tapus maintains that it is the combination of the features that makes the fingerprints unique, which she believes is the same technique used by humans to remember landmarks. Scientists have identified the distinct firing patterns of the cells in a mammal's hippocampus that are responsible the animal's memory of locations, recreating the technique with probabilistic algorithms.
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MSU Professor to Try New Teaching Method in Germany
Montana State University (05/31/06) Ellig, Tracy

Montana State University computer science professor John Paxton plans to use problems from programming competitions to teach students about data structures and algorithms. Paxton, who has served as an MSU advisor for the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) for 16 years, will try the new teaching method on students at the University of Leipzig in Germany, where he is spending the 2006-2007 academic year after receiving a Fulbright Scholar Award. Students are typically shown which data structures and algorithms will solve a particular problem, but they do not gain a greater appreciation for the complexity of the solutions. "The traditional way of teaching this topic takes the excitement and challenge out of the material," says Paxton. He has seen firsthand how exciting the subject matter can be for students involved in programming competitions such as the annual ACM event, in which teams of three students have five hours to solve eight problems on a single computer. "They come back very motivated to learn more computer science because the competition points out what knowledge they're missing," says Paxton. The response of Leipzig students to competition problems will determine how much of the course he will incorporate into his teaching methods upon his return to MSU.
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Incidents Prompt New Scrutiny of Airplane Software Glitches
Wall Street Journal (05/30/06) P. A1; Michaels, Daniel; Pasztor, Andy

As commercial airplanes grow more dependent on increasingly complex computer code, software glitches are emerging as a primary safety concern. The systems in the latest jetliner contain more than 5 million lines of computer code, compared to fewer than 1 million in older models, making it increasingly difficult to locate the flaw when something goes wrong. While the software used in planes is tested far more rigorously than everyday office applications, the errors that inevitably arise can have much more serious consequences, and officials have begun reviewing flight data from earlier accidents to determine what role, if any, faulty software played. "It's our next big area of work," said Peggy Gillian of the FAA, adding that only recently officials and experts "came to the realization that we haven't looked at this area" closely enough. While no airplane crash has yet been attributed to malfunctioning software, several recent incidents where software glitches have disrupted flights have called attention to the problem. "A total loss of flight control could be worse than a fire on board," said Robin McCall, a retired pilot for Delta Air Lines. McCall says that automation programs can make it difficult for pilots to revert to manual controls to overcome a problem. Experts agree, however, that air travel has become much safer since the introduction of automated systems. Today's autopilot systems handle much more of the plane's functions than when they were first designed, including adjusting the cabin's air pressure, optimizing fuel efficiency, and warning of the threat of collision or mechanical breakdown. Forthcoming models, such as Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, will bring new levels of automation, replacing autonomous hardware and software with redundant central computers. A group of U.S. airlines, pilots' unions, jet manufacturers, and software vendors recently launched a data-gathering initiative to analyze previous computer-related accidents.
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Intelligent Beings in Space!
New York Times (05/30/06) P. D1; Chang, Kenneth

The increasing distance and duration of space exploration missions has led scientists to develop new and faster methods of interplanetary communication. Scientists are using artificial intelligence techniques to automate spacecraft, looking to devices such as iRobot's robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba for inspiration. Intelligent software already manages the schedule of Earth Observing-1 (EO-1), a satellite that monitors the Earth for events such as volcanic eruptions, scanning for changes that could indicate a natural disaster. "Almost immediately, within a matter of hours, the spacecraft is reprogramming itself to image these targets," said NASA's Steve Chien, "and we can get a very rapid response imagery of breaking science events." The computer can readjust the satellite's schedule, postponing other observations based on the data it collects and the data supplied by sensors and other satellites. The planning software pruned EO-1's budget by one-quarter when it was introduced in 2003, and it could see future use in new planetary explorations, such as the next mission to Jupiter and its moons. NASA's two Mars rovers both contain stereo cameras that enable them to navigate around rocks and other obstacles, and they will soon receive an upgrade to speed the process of relaying instructions from mission control. Another software improvement will enable the rovers to take a preliminary look at their data and only send back the images that are useful. Tests have shown that the software correctly identifies the clouds that the rovers are studying 93 percent of the time, which will dispense with the time-consuming transfer of meaningless data. The software still has a long way to go, however. "None of the AI systems are as smart as a 2-year-old," said NASA's Cynthia Cheung. New applications will incorporate machine learning, where a computer's intelligence builds based on its collected experiences.
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Keeping Computers in Check
CNet (05/26/06) Terdiman, Daniel

If left to develop unchecked, computers could become so dependent on algorithms that they could overlook basic issues of livability as they execute tasks such as determining the maximum number of buildings in a neighborhood, warns Sheldon Brown, the head of the University of California at San Diego's Center for Research in Computing and the Arts, where he develops and oversees research on the power of algorithm-based content. "Just because we can do something, doesn't mean we should," Brown said. "When we build tools, we have to think deeper and broader about what the tool is doing." Brown has developed a preliminary version of a software application called "Scalable City" to help researchers explore the extent to which computational power can aid and even automate urban planning and video game development. Using "L-curves," the multimedia Scalable City can digitally fill the image of a barren landscape with rows of new houses flanking elegantly curved roads. Brown warns that while the neighborhood looks ideal from an aerial view, on the street at the micro level, the computer cannot know how livable the environment will actually be for humans. The tendency of the algorithm-based Scalable City to design neighborhoods too crowded with buildings for human inhabitants illustrates Brown's fear that looking at computer power from the macro perspective ignores the logical errors that are only visible on the micro scale. Scalable City could also lead to practical applications in video game design within a couple years, such as new tools for enabling multiple players to control and engage in the games. Brown notes that humans in many ways already constitute a living data set. "Our lives in general are now really a part of algorithmic processes," he said, adding that the "major part of our lives are for producing algorithmic data and then interacting with it. We've become I/O, input/output."
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The Next Wave of the Web
Nature (05/26/06) Butler, Declan

In a recent interview, Nigel Shadbolt, chair of the panel 'The Next Wave of the Web' at the recent WWW2006 conference, discussed the current and future states of the Web. The dominant theme at the conference was the emergence of wireless broadband for mobile devices, which will bring the concept of ubiquitous computing closer to reality than ever. The emergence of pervasive mobile computing will bring the Web to millions of people around the world who cannot afford computers or live in areas with no network infrastructure. The conference also focused on Web 2.0 in the context of solving problems through the broad participation of many users. Shadbolt noted computer users' growing willingness to share data on the Web, pointing to the mash-up phenomenon as evidence of the potential of the open-data movement. Microsoft's Tony Hey gave a presentation on e-science, or the trend of scientists using massive, distributed datasets to conduct research. Shadbolt, whose background is in artificial intelligence, believes that the Web will be the environment where the discipline will finally realize its potential, noting that the Bayesian statistical methods that enable machines to make decisions already pervade the Web, such as the open-source Bayesian spam blocker, SpamBayes. Shadbolt is also optimistic that the Semantic Web could finally begin living up to its expectations. Even simple descriptions about the meaning of data, such as RDF, could greatly improve the functionality of the Semantic Web, Shadbolt says, noting that a basic RDF tag can describe key data classes and relationships. Shadbolt believes that the next major developments will be in displays, with flexible screens and laser projection fast becoming commercially viable.
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Intelligent Machines
UC Irvine New University (05/30/06) Kim, Jocelyn

By storing human cognition for all eternity, intelligent technology could bring an end to human mortality, according to Marvin Minsky, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT who recently gave a speech on the future of intelligent machines. Intelligent machines could also safeguard human mortality by conducting dangerous missions, though Minsky notes that most robots in production today are designed for trivial tasks. "All over the world, people are building the same robots. People should be working on something more useful," he said. "Could we make a clever machine other than those that play soccer?" Minsky believes that researchers should concentrate on analogy-based problem solving, rather than neuron networks, genetic algorithms, and other applications that he dismisses as "fads." He attributes machines' inability to understand language to the lack of sufficient programming. "The reason why computers don't understand words is no one has made a semantic dictionary," Minsky said. "Common words have a dozen meanings. You need to have representations of different things and links between similar definitions."
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Image Binarisation
Nation (Thailand) (05/26/06) Sutharoj, Pongpen

The best computer science project at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF 2006) went to Natt Piyapramote, a 17-year-old student from Thailand. Piyapramote won for his automated image binarisation software, which will allow users to bypass the use of an optical character recognition (OCR) scanner in converting document images from conventional digital cameras to a black-and-white image file. "Just put the image file into a computer and have the software proceed," says Piyapramote. "The outcome is automatic with no manual involvement." Piyapramote's statistical-based Adaptive Binarisation for Document Imaging project, which has also won an award from ACM, has an acceptable 14 percent error rate, and although it is just 5 percent off the best in the world in terms of efficiency, it offers faster processing and is more automated. He plans to lower the error rate to 5 percent, and put the software on the Web free of charge for those who want to simplify the conversion of document image files into text files in order to edit information. The Young Scientist Competition participant also won an award from the American Association for Artificial Intelligence for the best project with an artificial intelligence component.
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Codes on Sites 'Captcha' Anger of Web Users
Wall Street Journal (05/31/06) P. B1; Kesmodel, David

Web sites such as Yahoo.com protect themselves from mischief-making programs by having users who wish to gain access solve puzzles known as "captchas," which often take the form of a visually distorted code that must be correctly typed. Keeping pace with new spamming techniques and strategies has prompted some Web sites to make these codes trickier to solve, irritating more and more Web users. "We know there's no perfect panacea, but we think this is a great tool to prevent malicious activity," says Google engineering director David Jeske. However, the World Wide Web Consortium published a paper in November 2005 warning that captchas "fail to properly recognize users with disabilities as human" and can be thwarted by clever programmers, as part of its argument for programmers to develop alternative captchas. The group noted, for example, that spam companies sometimes use people rather than automated programs or "bots" to decipher the captchas. Director of the consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative Judy Brewer says visual captchas are especially difficult for disabled people because they "don't tell humans and computers apart; instead, they tell able-bodied humans and computers, along with disabled humans, apart." Alternatives some Web sites are exploring or deploying include audio captchas or quizzes that involve simple problem-solving. In development by Lehigh University computer science professor Henry Baird are "scattertype" captchas that fragment each letter in the code, while some sites are simplifying their captchas so humans can solve them easier.
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IBM Looks to Appalachian Colleges for Future IT Professionals
Computerworld (05/26/06) Weiss, Todd

As part of its educational partnership with the Appalachian College Association (ACA), IBM, through its two-year-old Academic Initiative program, will provide the association's 35 two- and four-year liberal arts colleges and universities with $5 million in software, technical services, and discounts on software in an effort to boost the number of students studying information technology. IBM held a workshop last week at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., that enabled professors from ACA schools to train on the company's donated technology so that they can better prepare their students for careers in IT. By next fall, about 350 to 500 students from ACA colleges and universities in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia are expected to enroll in classes that will be taught by professors who have attended the IT workshops and have been trained on various technologies. "IBM is concerned about where its next IT workers are going to come from," says Martin Ramsey, chief instructional technologist for the nonprofit ACA consortium. IBM also believes the region has the potential to develop some high-tech startups. "A lot of the next Googles could come out of central Appalachia," says Mark Hanny, vice president of the Academic Initiative.
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The Next Big Bang: Man Meets Machine
CNet (05/29/06)

The fusion of digital technology and human form could become a reality as scientists continue to make discoveries in biotechnology and nanotechnology. Scientists are also looking to the biological world to replace some mechanical parts of a computer with proteins, DNA, viruses, and bacteria. The symbiotic confluence of different these strains of scientific endeavor is known as "BANG," short for bits, atoms, neurons, and genes. "All these things are converging because biology, nanotech, and organic chemistry are running together," said Mark Bunger of Lux Research. When 24-year-old Matthew Nagle was stabbed in the neck in July 2001, the blow severed his spinal cord and he was instantly paralyzed from the neck down. Nagle volunteered for an experimental treatment that implanted a chip into the part of his brain that controls motor functions, detecting the electrical activity when the neurons fire that indicates "movement intention." The software reads the intention and translates it into instructions that manipulate a cursor on a screen. Scientists are also picking up on the technology to combat Lou Gehrig's Disease, or ALS, a disease much more complicated and diffuse than a spinal injury. Researchers are also turning to biology to improve the human-computer interface, particularly as silicon chips and other existing technologies reach their physical limitations. To that end, scientists have been exploring the basic building blocks of life--DNA, enzymes, proteins--as the basis for a repository of biological components that could help create synthetic organisms. As the volume of digital content rapidly proliferates, scientists are also exploring new storage technologies that resemble DNA. The military is also investigating biotechnologies to give paralysis sufferers greater autonomy and to enable able-bodied soldiers to operate equipment remotely.
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Why the Democratic Ethic of the World Wide Web May be About to End
New York Times (05/28/06) P. 9; Cohen, Adam

The effort by Internet service providers to impose a new system of fees on the Web poses a threat to Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee's vision of a platform on which everyone in the world could communicate on an equal basis, writes Adam Cohen. The new system of fees could create a tiered Internet that would enable service providers to shut out Web sites whose politics they do not agree with. Even if ISPs did not discriminate on the basis of content, access fees would automatically marginalize smaller, poorer sites. For example, Internet users can now watch video from content providers such as BBC World as well as video blogs and Web sites such as YouTube.com, where people can upload videos of their own creation. However, under tiered pricing, Internet users may be able to get videos only from major corporate channels. Berners-Lee, who has begun speaking out in favor of net neutrality, predicts that the fees could also hamper future innovations, such as a Web site that will allow Internet users to take videos of an event with their cell phones and piece them together to create a three-dimensional image of what happened. He also argues that service providers may be hurting themselves by pushing for tiered pricing, because customers who are used to the Web as it is now may not pay for access to a Web that is restricted to wealthy corporate content providers.
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Interactive Display System Knows Users by Touch
New Scientist (05/25/06) Sandhana, Lakshmi

Researchers at the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories (MERL) have employed touch-sensitive technology in the development of an interactive computer display that is able to differentiate between multiple simultaneous users and keep track of them. "Most touch screens only permit one touch at a time," says Paul Dietz, a researcher at MERL in Massachusetts. "A much smaller number allow multiple, simultaneous touches, but none of these can tell you who is touching where." The DiamondTouch (DT) system is designed to assign a distinct electrical signal to individuals as they touch the surface of the screen, and send the signals through their bodies to the receiver located in their seat. The connected computer knows exactly where people have touched the screen, and distinguishes each user's touch all at once. The identity technology enables DT to track the input of each user and even limit access to certain functions. MERL researchers view the DT system as having potential applications as an addition to controls at power stations, the cockpit of an airplane, or the dashboards of cars and trucks. Clifton Forlines adds DT could also be used in gaming to create smarter multiplayer games.
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Eclipse Sets Off a Big Bang
SD Times (05/15/06)No. 150, P. 28; Burd, Barry

In late June the Eclipse Foundation will roll out major updates to 10 of its most prominent projects in the Callisto Simultaneous Release, whose goal is to guarantee that the projects can interoperate without interfering with each other, writes Barry Burd, a professor in the mathematics and computer science department at Drew University. Each project will remain a separate open-source initiative, according to an official Web site. "The Callisto effort will be more or less invisible to the user community, because the things that are going to happen as a result of Callisto are that the projects are going to get cleaner," says the Eclipse Foundation's Bjorn Freeman-Benson. Callisto seeks to make users' lives easier by requiring all project developers to offer enabling and disabling for their project's features, and by using the new Coordinated Update sites to obtain Eclipse plug-in downloads with little fuss. Callisto projects include the Eclipse Project update Eclipse 3.2, which features scalability, extensibility, enterprise readiness, ease of use, Java 6 compiler compliance, and a Java Code Clean Up wizard. Other initiatives focus on improving the user level experience, such as the Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools (BIRT) project to deliver the ability to generate business reports in Web and PDF formats. All Callisto projects will employ the Java version of IBM's International Components for Unicode libraries, or ICU4J. The next Eclipse update after Callisto may have a greater concentration on unifying the various projects, and the Callisto model's long-term hope is to instill another layer of respectability within open-source software.
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Teaching Reliability
IEEE Distributed Systems Online (05/06) Vol. 7, No. 5,Regehr, John

John Regehr of the University of Utah's School of Computing believes embedded systems education should prioritize software reliability. He assigns most of the blame for unreliable software not to students, but to the single-approach, "cowboy programming" strategy that students become used to doing because it works so well for small, well-defined projects in first- and second-year programming courses. Regehr lists partial and entertaining solutions that could solve the problem by enhancing embedded programming assignments. One solution is a code review immediately following the assignment's completion, augmented with class queries about design and implementation. Another suggestion of Regehr's is for students to present correctness arguments, which creates an incentive for the students to account for them during the design and implementation phase. "I devote a considerable fraction of my embedded software course to describing the available embedded software architectures, each of which comes with a very specific set of tradeoffs," notes Regehr. "The lesson I try to impart is that the choice of software architecture should be deliberate, rather than evolving out of a sequence of greedy choices." Regehr also stresses an emphasis on testing and interoperation, and reports that the sting of failure can be a valuable reminder of students' need to practice cautious development that emphasizes thinking ahead, assertions, testing, tools, and incremental deployment.
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A Review of National Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and a Proposed National Electronic Initiative Framework (NEIF)
First Monday (05/06)No. 11,Peslak, Alan R.

The digital divide--the chasm between those to whom information and communications technologies (ICT) are easily available and those to whom they are not--is an undeniable fact and its continued existence reflects the lack of a national electronic initiative framework (NEIF) to improve access and utilization of ICT, writes Penn State University assistant professor of information sciences and technology Alan Peslak. He proposes such a framework as a tool that national and non-governmental organizations can use to bridge the digital divide. Peslak suggests that all national electronic initiatives be based on general doctrines built upon the five general rights of man espoused in the political philosophies of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson: Provision of equality, protection of life, acquisition and retention of liberty, pursuit of happiness, and protection of property. Electronic initiatives must then address specific directives that correspond with the five doctrines, namely universal access to ICT, societal enhancement, better electronic government, economic improvement, and legal and regulatory control. These directives can be applied to general domains, such as information access, communications access, and infrastructure for universal access; education, health, environment, agriculture, international issues, the incorporation of ICT into everyday life, information content, and law and order for societal enhancement; procurement, efficiency, access to government data, citizen-government communications, and government services for improved e-government; research and development and competitiveness for economic betterment; and intellectual property, security, cyber-crime, and privacy for legal and regulatory control. The final level in the NEIF consists of deliverables, the products and services furnished by the electronic initiative. Peslak concludes that the current state of the nation will by necessity reflect on the specific deliverables each domain addresses.
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