Timely Topics for IT Professionals
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Volume 5, Issue 462: Wednesday, February 26, 2003
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- "Critics Call for Electronic Voting Halt"
Associated Press (02/25/03); Konrad, Rachel
Silicon Valley scientists want a moratorium on electronic voting declared until touch-screen voting machines can be modified to produce a paper trail in order to ensure that vote counts are accurate and to deter tampering. Critics' chief concern over paperless e-voting machines is the potential for election fraud and an erosion of democracy: "Black Box Voting: Ballot-Tampering in the 21st Century" author Bev Harris warns that the rising adoption of e-voting machines will result in a consolidation of power among the major suppliers. Another concern is that hackers could tamper with electoral results through a back door installed by malicious software developers, while scientists warn that e-voting machines are vulnerable to glitches that could also compromise the final tally. "You'd think we'd have enough of an understanding of computers to know that a voter-verified paper backup system is the absolute only way you can have any integrity whatsoever in elections," says SRI International's Peter G. Neumann, who was disappointed by the Santa Clara County board of supervisors' tentative approval on Tuesday to purchase 5,000 paperless touch-screen units. E-voting machine manufacturers dismiss such worries as inflated, and insist that their products comply with specifications established by the Federal Election Commission and the National Association of State Election Directors. Meanwhile, election officials are concerned that such systems, which are very expensive, could become outdated or incompatible with new software every few years.
Peter Neumann is co-chair of ACM's Advisory Committee on Security and Privacy. For more information on ACM's activities regarding e-voting, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm/.
- "PCI Express to Usher in PC Changes"
CNet (02/25/03); Kanellos, Michael; Shankland, Stephen
PCI Express interconnect technology is expected to succeed the PCI-X standard for connecting PCs to peripherals and other systems; PCI Express chips should arrive by the end of 2003, while PCI Express-enabled PCs will become available the following year. These PCs will be based on Intel's Powersville PC concept, which features the Tejas processor, while the company will also deliver toolkits to software and hardware makers so that PCI Express compatibility can be built into future products. Mike Fister of Intel's Enterprise Platforms Group describes PCI Express as "a foundation technology that will drive the industry," and predicts it will help halve the area of the PC motherboard. PCI Express is a serial link, which obviates the need for parallel delivery and can significantly reduce the number of wires used to transmit data. Furthermore, the PCI-SIG consortium estimates that PCI Express will run at 2.5 GHz, compared to the 133 MHz typical of PCI-X. Intel fellow Pete McWilliams anticipates that PCI Express will first replace the PCI bus and AGP bus, while a modified version will supplant the "southbridge" in PC chipsets. However, ServerWorks' Kimball Brown expects the full transition to serial servers will not take place until the next PCI revision is released in 2005 or 2006, given corporate customers' reluctance to adopt new standards and technologies. Meanwhile, PCI-SIG Chairman Tony Pierce says that his organization has completed a standard for PCI Express-based add-in cards that will be used to design plug-in cards for IEEE 1394 Firewire connections or high-speed networks; another PCI Express variant currently in development would enable signals to be transmitted via cable.
- "Electronics Recyclers Vow to Clean Up"
SiliconValley.com (02/26/03); Diaz, Sam
Sixteen North American electronics recyclers signed a pledge on Tuesday to responsibly handle electronic waste in order to prevent the buildup of such trash in landfills, as well as halt e-waste exports to Third World countries where poor laborers, mostly children, run the risk of exposure to hazardous materials because of unsanitary working conditions. Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) executive director Ted Smith says this initiative should help mobilize enough people to get the attention of legislators. One of the signatories, Hackett Electronics' Mark Levitt, promised to keep tabs on old components as they move throughout the recycling chain, only do business with companies that are also dedicated to responsible e-waste recycling, and keep dangerous items out of landfills, incinerators, and prisons, where they are taken apart by low-paid convicts. United DataTech general manager Tom Hogye, who also signed the pledge, argues that recycling makes ethical and financial sense, as well as keeps Americans employed. Jim Puckett of Basel Action Network says the pledge signing should encourage consumers with obsolete computers and monitors to send them to recyclers. Smith observes that a recent Mercury News expose on bad e-waste recycling conditions in China has helped raise awareness of the problem and make recyclers more responsible. "This has got to stop," he declares. "We're harming the environment. We're harming children." The signing was hosted by Basel Action Network and SVTC.
- "Warchalking Hype Raises Wireless-Security Consciousness"
Orlando Sentinel (02/25/03); Cobbs, Chris
Wireless company networks tempt techies with new challenges to prove their skills, free high-speed Internet access, and possibly valuable corporate secrets. Finding these opportunities is not difficult due to a low-tech method of marking spots where wireless signals can be tapped with chalk, called warchalking. The practice is adapted from signs hobos used during the Great Depression to tell one another about opportunities. These chalked symbols are found only occasionally in densely populated cities in the United States and even more so in Europe, but elicit stern warnings from experts. Scott McPherson, chief technology officer at California's state technology office, says the occurrence of wireless break-ins and the damage done is often not reported by companies because they fear ruining public trust. Ernst & Young security and technology solutions consultant Jose Granado warns that the threat could entail more than financial consequences, especially if terrorists tap into critical infrastructure networks, such as those controlling electrical grids. Homeowners also ought to take precautions against people sniffing wireless signals by making sure to enable their security features. However, warchalking is not popularized as a malicious activity, but as a way for technically competent people to test their wireless equipment and skill. IBM executive wireless consultant Chris Coy says, for example, that many of those that scan for wireless security lapses do not actually take the time to enter the network, but just map it out. And Stanford University Center for Internet and Society director Jennifer Granick argues there is actually nothing illegal about tapping corporate wireless networks for Internet access, though she draws the line at snooping for data.
- "The Future of Java"
NewsFactor Network (02/24/03); Brockmeier, Joe
The Java programming language is not gathering as much media attention as in years past, but industry insiders say that is because it is now taken for granted as part of the enterprise IT infrastructure. Java has become another common tool, but is also continuing to evolve. Sun Microsystems recently announced compatibility with WS-I, or the Web Services Interoperability Organization protocols, so that Java Web services applications can work seamlessly with those built on other platforms, as long as they also adhere to WS-I best practices. Experts say the Java development process is also improving as Sun continues to open opportunities for other companies to contribute. The Java Community Process (JCP) is one of the best software development processes around, says Oracle's Don Deutsch, and contrasts with Microsoft's closed .NET approach. In the JCP, committees with an interest in seeing a feature quickly work out specifications for new ideas and then test them. One current specification request in the works is software hooks that enable vendors such as Oracle, IBM, and Sun to create better development tools for Java-based applications, says JCP Program Office director Onno Kluyt. Other fast-moving areas Kluyt mentions include Web services, embedded technology, and security. As to Java's relation with .NET, experts say that the Java development community is learning from the good aspects of .NET while offering a non-proprietary technology that does not require Windows for key aspects such as Web forms.
- "Computer Made From DNA and Enzymes"
National Geographic News (02/24/03); Lovgren, Stefan
Israeli researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science have followed up last year's development of a programmable molecular computer synthesized from DNA and enzymes with a new device fueled by the single DNA molecule that also acts as input data. The computer can perform 330 trillion operations a second, which beats the speed of the fastest PC by a factor of over 100,000, while its energy efficiency is more than a million times that of a PC. Mixing DNA and enzymes together can produce a simple calculation as a byproduct of the chemical reactions without human intervention. The mathematical operations performed depends on the composition of the DNA molecule that acts as software. Previous proposals for DNA computers used the ATP molecule for fuel. DNA computers are well suited for "fuzzy logic" operations because strands of DNA molecules can produce billions of answers concurrently, while scientists envision such devices revolutionizing the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries. Ehud Shapiro of the Weizmann Institute speculates that "autonomous bio-molecular computers" could be embedded in living cells to monitor for anomalies and correct them via drug delivery. The DNA computer was hailed by the Guinness World Records last week as "the smallest biological computing device" ever devised.
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- "Nanotech to Pave Way for Micro-Machines"
CNet (02/24/03); Kanellos, Michael
Speaking at the Nanotech 2003 conference on Monday, Albert Pisano of the University of California at Berkeley predicted that smaller, less expensive products and new markets could become a reality within the next decade thanks to advancements in nanotechnology. Stanford University researchers have proven that small radios that have not been hardened against radiation could be mounted on satellites, with burnouts offset by the number of units mounted on the spacecraft. Pisano says, "Most people forget that a radio is two-thirds filter and that filters are mechanical. Sensors and computing and communications can all be heavily miniaturized." He says the next five years may witness the emergence of a market for miniaturized transmitters so that power lines, freeways, and bridges could be monitored better. Battery life could also be extended significantly by a shift from electric to thermal power thanks to nanotech developments. The nanotech wave will serve as a watershed event for the field of mechanical engineering because most of these minuscule systems will interact directly with the physical world rather than rely on the electrical transmission of information. Pisano gave a timeline of approximately five years for the appearance of the first "killer apps" for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). Nanotech 2003 will showcase several MEMS papers from universities and private companies. These papers will cover such subjects as microfluidics and molecular computing.
- "Wi-Fi Security Gets a Boost"
IDG News Service (02/24/03); Lawson, Stephen
A new, more secure 802.11 standard will be released later this year by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), but several technologies are already available to help secure wireless LANs. Cisco's Sri Sundaralingam says a simple, but oft-neglected, way of securing a Wi-Fi network is to enable Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), a simple yet flawed standard that determined hackers can defeat. The new IEEE 802.11i protocol will replace outmoded security features with new technologies such as refreshed encryption keys used for each packet session, stronger encryption through Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP), authentication, and protection against repeated packets used by hackers to spoof security. Intel network architect Jesse Walker says this type of multi-point approach to security is the best, and adds that another technology, Wireless Protected Access (WPA), would be built into all Wi-Fi products by August. Sundaralingam says there are different levels of security administrators can use to protect their systems before 802.11i, depending on the risk they are willing to take with unauthorized Wi-Fi access. Besides standard WEP, dynamic WEP can be used to change keys so that "script kiddies" with hacking software cannot break the encryption as easily. User authentication such as Cisco's Lightweight Extensible Authentication Protocol (LEAP) also helps. Even managers that have decided not to deploy wireless systems should be aware that employees can set up unofficial access points on their own, says Sundaralingam.
- "A Radio Chip in Every Consumer Product"
New York Times (02/25/03) P. C1; Deutsch, Claudia H.; Feder, Barnaby J.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) chips are being tested and touted by retailers as an alternative to the limited practice of tracking items with bar codes. Joint ventures between manufacturers, retailers, and customers aim to use the technology to keep tabs on products from their assembly to their sale, prevent theft, and manage inventory better. RFID chips would allow stores to know how much customers paid for products even if they lose the receipt, and identify customers who buy defective products in order to simplify the recall process. Meanwhile, James H. Gordon Jr. of Canon USA says his company wants to employ the technology to facilitate preventative maintenance for its equipment, as well as keep track of lease expirations. There are, however, problems with RFID technology: For one thing, electronic tags cost at least 30 cents each, while the ideal price should be less than a penny. In addition, such chips could threaten personal privacy if they are programmed with personal information, such as credit card data. There are also technical issues--it is difficult to shrink the attached antennas that accompany the tags, while most retailers are holding back on deploying the technology until all merchants, manufacturers, and carriers agree to a universal RFID communication standard. RFID transmissions can also be disrupted by other communications devices, such as cell phones and local wireless networks, as well as by liquids and metals. Nevertheless, early tests have been promising, and chipmakers are fervently promoting RFID technology. "That need to have the right product on the right shelf in the right store at the right time--ultimately, that's what will drive our business," says Karsten Ottenberg of Philips Semiconductor.
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- "Swarm Intelligence: An Interview With Eric Bonabeau"
O'Reilly Network (02/21/03); Story, Derrick
Wasp and ant colonies provide insight into future IT management systems, says Eric Bonabeau, a keynote speaker at the upcoming Emerging Technologies conference and an expert on swarm intelligence. Bonabeau used swarm intelligence ideas to speed routing at France Telecom, building small computer programs that acted as "virtual ants" on a network and helping find the shortest route for data. The ant programs deposit bits of information on router hardware just as real ants mark efficient trails with chemical pheromones. Bonabeau says systems built entirely on the basis of swarm intelligence will be needed in order to deal with the growing complexity of future systems because the old model of centralized control will not scale to meet that demand. He uses words like "autonomy, emergence, and distributedness" to characterize swarm intelligence, as opposed to preprogrammed, centralized systems. Bonabeau says managers fear losing control to what they do not understand, but the example of a few high-profile successes will spur acceptance for swarm intelligence. Some systems are already deployed in settings such as factory scheduling, supply chain optimization, and flight control systems for collections of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The largest hurdle in furthering swarm intelligence is figuring out how to program individual components, or "ants," to behave in the new systems. He says, "The big issue is this: if I am letting a decentralized, self-organizing system take over...my computer network, how should I program the individual virtual ants so that the network behaves appropriately at the system-wide level?" He says if applied well, solutions emerge from the actions of the agent ants.
- "Software Uses In-Road Detectors to Alleviate Traffic Jams"
An Ohio State University engineer has developed software that could help alleviate traffic jams faster using loop detectors that are currently used to control traffic lights and scan traffic. In the March issue of Transportation Research, Benjamin Coifman of Ohio State describes how he employed these detectors to precisely measure vehicles' travel time and identify traffic jams. His work started at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1999, when he equipped control boxes along a three-mile stretch of road with computer network hardware; traffic data was collated from loop detectors every third of a mile. Coifman then wrote computer algorithms that measure vehicle travel time, and could determine the formation of a traffic jam within three and a half minutes of the initial traffic slowdown. Coifman also had to instill an accountability for human factors--rubbernecking, lane changes, etc.--within the software, which can pinpoint delays caused by accidents long before slowed traffic backs up to a detector. The Ohio State engineer is currently working with the Ohio Department of Transportation to improve the travel time estimates gathered by loop detectors and displayed to motorists along highways so they can avoid traffic. Coifman adds that road design could also be enhanced with his software, which was produced with the support of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, the California Department of Transportation, and the University of California's Partners for Advanced Highways and Transit Program. The Texas Transportation Institute's 2002 Urban Mobility Study estimates that the average American urban resident annually spends 62 hours stuck in traffic, while the average city can lose $900 million a year due to traffic jams.
- "Taking the Bioterrorism Fight to Home PCs"
Boston Globe (02/24/03) P. C3; Bray, Hiawatha
The effects of a terrorist-engineered smallpox outbreak could be mitigated by a joint effort between Texas-based United Devices and Oxford University to harness idle computers to search for a cure. "We basically have a way for people who are concerned about bioterrorism, not only in the United States but all over the world, to plug into a network and actually do something about it," declares United Devices CEO Edward Hubbard. To become a member of the worldwide PatriotGrid network, all a person has to do is download software off the United Devices Web site, install it on their computer, and leave it on while the program runs chemical analysis. Logging back onto the Internet enables the program to send the results of its analysis to headquarters, and download more data to study. Hubbard estimates that the smallpox project could be completed in a couple of months on the PatriotGrid, whereas a 1,000-chip computing cluster would take approximately 45 years. United Devices also hopes the project will establish the worth of grid computing. Oxford chemistry department chairman Graham Richards notes that more potentially disease-killing molecules can be tested much faster via grid computing, and estimates that the grid will shave as much as two years off the search for a smallpox cure. Once the project ends, Oxford and United Devices will give the final results to the Department of Defense. The original impetus for the United Devices/Oxford collaboration was to find new drugs to fight cancer.
- "Promise of Intelligent Networks"
BBC News (02/24/03); Ward, Mark
Intel researchers are developing a way for wireless networks to self-organize into "mesh networks" that can automatically re-route data in response to fluctuating demand as well as the addition or removal of data devices. Mike Witteman of Intel's network architecture lab says that first-generation wireless networks have only scratched the surface of their potential. He notes that the typical enterprise strategy is to directly connect all wireless access points serving a cluster of PCs to the corporate backbone, and advocates the use of external wireless access points as relays that channel traffic from scattered PCs to a small group of hubs linked to the central network via cable. Mesh networks' biggest plus is the elimination of the dependency on a central access point to relay data between network devices, according to Witteman. His team is trying to embed intelligence within wireless devices so that they can map out all possible data pathways between access points in order to better handle sudden bandwidth changes. Witteman says the goal is to create a network in which every device could serve as a data relay. "There are going to be tens of millions of computers out there with these capabilities and it's going to change the world," he predicts. Possible applications include home-based wireless mesh networks that provide broadband to rural areas, and industrial networks of smart sensors that monitor assembly lines.
- "Making Cars That Drive Themselves"
Associated Press (02/22/03); Jablon, Robert
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) challenged inventors on Saturday to build unmanned, self-navigating robot vehicles to race from the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas--a distance of approximately 250 miles--within 10 hours, without any human aid. The winner would receive $1 million in cash, but the real attraction is a place in the history books, according to Alan Scrivner of Shaffer Research. DARPA's ultimate goal is to develop technology that could lead to automated drones programmed to carry out missions requiring them to traverse enemy terrain. Potential participants noted that such robots would require custom software, and could cost between $30,000 to $100,000. R. Kevin Watson of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory notes that, in order to maintain an average speed of 30 mph, the vehicles would have to crunch video data 30 times faster than the twin automated Mars rovers that will be launched by NASA later this year. Scrivner adds that "they're asking us to go three or four times as fast as anyone's ever gone," a daunting challenge. The race would be held annually starting this year; DARPA Director Anthony Tether does not expect the challenge to be met until the fourth race, and says that technology of successful designs may be commercialized in several years.
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- "Spyware Epidemic Rallies Call for Action"
ZDNet (02/24/03); Borland, John
The last year has witnessed a significant proliferation of adware and spyware--software that resides on Web surfers' computers without their knowledge, usually to serve ads or to gather information on user behavior and send it back to a parent company. Such programs are automatically installed on the hard drives of users who view an unsolicited HTML email or visit Web pages that trigger a "drive-by download." Large companies also view the problem as serious, since many spyware programs contact their parent companies via corporate networks, thus compromising corporate security. Concurrent with the spread of spyware is investment in anti-spyware technologies: Hard-drive cleaners such as Pest Patrol and Ad-Aware and personal firewalls such as ZoneAlarm have increased in popularity. However, security companies warn that it is becoming more and more difficult to stem the rising tide of the most irritating forms of spyware, since the writers of such programs are developing more creative ways to install and distribute their software. "The challenge for any anti-spyware software lies here in keeping the detection mechanisms as well as the detection database up-to-date at the same time," notes Patrick Kolla, creator of the Spybot anti-spyware program. One of spyware's more nefarious strategies, employed by the CommonName marketing program, is to cripple computers' Net access if the uninvited software is removed. One protective measure against drive-by downloads suggested by security experts is to set Internet Explorer security settings to high or medium; another is to use free anti-spyware programs to take an inventory of the software running on one's computer.
- "Government Agencies Recruiting IT Workers"
Dallas Morning News (02/16/03) P. 9L; Godinez, Victor
With 50 percent of the federal IT workforce expected to reach retirement age by 2004, the U.S. government is hungry for new blood. Seventy percent of the nearly 60,000 federal IT workers counted by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) at the end of 2000 were over 40 years old, and 29 percent were over the age of 51. NAPA expects that 30,000 of those workers will retire in the next 10 years. "We need good, sound, solid information technology professionals to help us develop the delivery of our programs to American citizens here and all around the world," says Ira Hobbs of the federal Chief Information Officers Council. Cybersecurity, programming project management, and enterprise architecture are among the most highly sought-after skills the government is looking for. Brainbench CEO Mike Russiello notes that the shortage of IT personnel pretty much spans all departments, and one of the federal sector's attractive features for new recruits are the cutting-edge technology projects it is undertaking. Techies.com's 2002 State of the Techie Address ranks the government as the third-most popular employer for IT professionals, after Microsoft and IBM. However, the government's obsolete and overlong hiring process is a major turnoff for employees, Russiello reports. Hobbs remarks that the government aims to simplify the process and plans to improve online applications significantly.
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- "Is Total Information Awareness a Homeland Security Answer or Big Brother?"
Roll Call--Telecommunications & Technology (02/24/03) Vol. 48, No. 61, P. 8; Wyden, Ron; Wynne, Michael
Michael Wynne, principal deputy under secretary of Defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) hold differing views on the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness (TIA) system, which would integrate databases about citizens' daily activities into a single repository that could be mined for evidence of suspected terrorist activity. Wynne claims that "in the 21st century, the key to fighting terrorism is information," and asserts TIA will be a critical tool for rooting out terrorists before they can launch attacks. He insists that TIA would not be used to monitor innocent citizens, adding that the Defense Department has incorporated protective measures to shield individual privacy. Furthermore, Wynne promises that a great deal of TIA research and development will focus on privacy-protection technologies, while both an internal and external board will act as privacy watchdogs. He explains that such a system is necessary, making the case that the Sept. 11 attacks could have been avoided if scraps of seemingly disparate information that indicated what the terrorists were planning could have been connected. Sen. Wyden, fearing that TIA could be used to spy on citizens and erode civil liberties, pushed legislation passed by Congress requiring that the Defense Department furnish a detailed report on the purpose and potential consequences of TIA within 90 days, or lose R&D funding. The provision also outlined congressional oversight of the project by making congressional approval essential to the implementation of TIA technology for the purpose of domestic surveillance. Wyden applauds the recent formation of the TIA oversight boards, but notes that congressional oversight should take precedence. He warns that the TIA office "will take current policies that already threaten the privacy of the American people and combine them in one big effort that could undermine privacy protections once and for all."
For information on ACM's concerns regarding TIA, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm/.
- "Evolution of the IT Lab"
InfoWorld (02/17/03) Vol. 25, No. 7, P. 45; McCarthy, Jack
IT labs are changing to better fit enterprise goals, in which on-the-fly testing and verification of products prior to implementation is de rigueur. "What we have is an environment where we can replicate changes that we need to [make] with the same people that are going to make the change," notes General Electric CTO Larry Biagini. "We don't have a building somewhere with a bunch of people sitting around doing nothing, waiting for something to implement." Testing is a vital component of technology integration, says Dan Kusnetzsky of International Data (IDC), who explains that an enterprise cannot implement a tech strategy without adequate testing. Golden Gate University CTO Anthony Hill observes that testing is a continuous process, because organizations are constantly tweaking and restructuring their business strategies. Testing can take place either in-house or through outside contractors, but Kusnetzsky maintains that it must boost the value of the business process. The standalone, separate IT lab model is no longer applicable in today's corporate environment. Hill describes the modern IT lab as "a test center with isolated networks to examine things and isolate them from the production enterprise."
- "Geekcorps Wants You!"
Software Development (02/03) Vol. 11, No. 2, P. 30; O'Connell, Laurie
The nonprofit startup Geekcorps aims to give international IT projects a leg up by sending volunteers to developing countries to provide IT and business expertise to small companies and community organizations. Geekcorps founder and executive director Ethan Zuckerman says the nonprofit's goal is "to boost the associated skills" of each project's developers so they will be able to complete and sustain the project on their own. Program Director Ana Maria Harkins notes that there is a shortage of "business-ready" students in developing nations, and Geekcorps is trying to mitigate this problem by strengthening the academic/industrial relationship using volunteers to teach workshops and even serve as adjunct professors at local universities. She says that big corporations can help Geekcorps by donating money, products, expertise, and employees to act as volunteers. The startup's initiative in Mongolia is a collaborative venture with a local firm developing unique wireless applications, local-loop telephony, and voice over IP; its goal is to give Mongolian IT workers a sense of professionalism and to foster grass-roots policy work by bridging the gap between business and government. Another project in Rwanda involves helping to build a database that will be used to facilitate the trial and sentencing of 100,000 to 200,000 individuals accused of committing genocide against the Rwandan people in 1994. "We'll know we're successful when we see some nontraditional IT powerhouses develop; when people talk about Senegal and Mongolia as the next exciting place where people are developing software," Zuckerman says. He adds that Geekcorps hopes to become involved with the invention, support, and sustainability of creative software applications.
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