Starting Cold

The commute: One Monday morning, Ken O'Neill, CIO of the government of Nunavut, left Ottawa for a three-hour flight north to Iqaluit, the capital of the new Canadian territory. The plane couldn't land because of bad weather, so it continued on to the next scheduled stop, Rankin Inlet, about 700 miles west across Hudson Bay. From there, the best choice was to continue about 700 miles farther west to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, then south to Edmonton and down to Calgary. Finally, O'Neill took the red-eye back east to Ottawa just in time to catch the next morning's flight to Iqaluit.

Welcome to Nunavut, where you can't assume anything. "You may set up what you want to do," O'Neill says, "but you have to switch to whatever comes up. It's hard."

O'Neill's understatement is typical of the people who live and work in Nunavut, an endless, windswept tundra on the top of the world, inhabited by the resilient, indigenous Inuit as well as a few hearty pioneers from the south.

Nunavut means "our land" in Inuktitut, the native language of the Inuit. It lies almost entirely between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole. The establishment of the territory was part of Canada's recent settlement of a long-standing Inuit land claim.

On April 1, 1999, 28 backwater communities of the Northwest Territories - with populations as low as 18 and names like Igluligaarjuk (place with a few houses) and Uqsuqtuug (place of plenty of blubber) - became a semiautonomous region with its own government.

Building the information technology infrastructure for that government is the challenge facing O'Neill and other IT folks in Nunavut.

True North: In the Arctic winter, when darkness reigns, the winds may blow the snow so furiously that you can't see planes parked on the tarmac from the school-bus yellow Iqaluit airport terminal. Flight crews tie a rope from the terminal to the aircraft for passengers to cling to while boarding so they don't lose their way and freeze to death in the darkness.

The IT challenge began when Dave Smith was recruited from the private sector, where he had worked with government suppliers, to come north in the fall of 1997 as CIO of the Interim Commission, which was preparing for the soon-to-be-elected new government. He hired Ottawa consultant Nancy Chisholm to set up a project office that would include about eight project managers, systems analysts, technical architects and database designers and administrators. Unable to find qualified candidates in Nunavut, they finally imported people from Ottawa.

The project team faced the political challenge of dealing with the divergent rules, regulations and agendas of three separate governments: the Canadian federal government, which was the source of funding; the Northwest Territories government, which was still running the area; and the nascent Nunavut government, which would be inaugurated in 18 months.

They faced technical challenges of providing services like e-mail and building a communications infrastructure and a financial system without closing off options that the new government might later want to consider.

But most of all, they faced the challenge of Nunavut itself: ice-bound for most of the year, with virtually no paved roads and accessible only by air except during the three summer months when the sea ice melts and ships can come in.

The climate and the seasons dominate when work can be done, Smith says. A blizzard can easily shut everything down, and there are communities that have gone 10 days without an aircraft being able to land. "If you're a technician that has gone into that community to install a communication circuit and that's when the storm happens, you're there for 10 days," he says. Everyone else who needs you - from your boss to your family - has to wait.

Nunavut provides cultural challenges as well. At certain times of the year, absentee rates may soar as Inuit workers go fishing or hunting - often for weeks. But the southern sojourners try not to lay their own values over the very different northern culture. "Priorities here are not our priorities," Chisholm says. "We can't try to impose our mentality here because this is their mandate and their land."

Arctic summer: On her first day in Iqaluit in the summer of 1998, Chisholm hit the sack exhausted. She awoke to bright sunlight before her alarm went off, jumped out of bed, showered, dressed, picked up her briefcase and stepped out into the empty town. Glancing at her watch for the first time, she discovered it was 1:30 a.m.

The environment dictates and hinders technology. When airplanes are unable to land because of bad weather, satellite communications are a blessing. But bandwidth is severely limited, and you can't assume the link will be up when you need it. If a communications circuit goes out and there's a snowstorm, it may be down for days, and at certain times of the year the satellite communications are unreliable because of sunspot activity.

You also can't assume that you will get the specialist you need to repair something. As a result, technicians design systems with failure in mind. "You have to design the income support [welfare] system so you can cut checks locally so that the people can buy food, because you can't depend on the airplane [to deliver them] or the phone system" to transfer funds, Smith says.

"There's really nothing that you can depend on," he says, and the project team developed IT standards with that in mind. Applications are primarily Microsoft Corp.-based, including Word, Exchange for e-mail and Internet Explorer. "We wanted the simplest possible [IT] environment," Smith says, "because if you can't get a specialist to fix your problem, you better not be using complicated things."

Customizable off-the-shelf applications are used in a couple of areas, such as help desk and financials, where a Microsoft option didn't fit, and a handful of systems have been developed with the eccentricities of income support, vital statistics and student financial records. Also, the project staff is using Microsoft Access rapid development tools for several dozen small, highly customized applications.

Jean Denis, a systems consultant in the project office, is working on one such application for the Justice Department. He says the more he works with users, the more they find to automate. "This started as a small kernel to schedule court appearances," he explains. "Now we're hoping to have the [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] file the charges electronically and merge right into this system."

Eventually, what started as small, discreet applications will be consolidated into a comprehensive judicial system.

Having a role to play in the new Nunavut is a matter of life and death to the Inuit, whose traditional culture has been assaulted by modern life, leaving scars of depression and suicide, particularly among teen-agers. The estimated suicide rate for Nunavut is about six times the rate for Canada as a whole and has been steadily increasing since the 1980s.

The new government has mandated that by 2010, 85% of all government positions - including positions in IT - will be held by Inuit people. Right now, however, IT skills are rare.

It's hard to develop local skills because centralized IT training is almost impossible, Smith says. "It's not the time off the job; it's the airplane tickets. And in some cases, you're pulling people out of the community who have never been out before. What do they do with their families when they're out of town on training? It's all those social issues and the travel costs that rule out any kind of centralized training for most things."

Homesick: A bright, young Inuk who had never been out of Nunavut was brought down to Ottawa for several weeks of IT training. She was settled into a hotel for the weekend, with the training sessions to begin Monday. She never showed up at class. She had packed her bags and taken the first flight home.

The project office has tried to move the Inuit into IT jobs through on-the-job coaching and mentoring. "There's an understanding that you may not be completely qualified to step into a role, but with mentoring and coaching, the people who have a life here in the community can transfer the skills from the people who are not going to stay here," Chisholm says.

In another effort to develop local IT talent, Chisholm set up the first IT help desk in Nunavut just in time for the inauguration of the territory. She knew there was no hope of getting IT specialists on the help desk staff. "People who had that knowledge were out repairing problems," she explains. But she hoped that, with the right design, the help desk could evolve into a repository of IT knowledge that less expert staff could use and learn by.

She settled on HelpDesk from Royalblue Technologies in New York, partly because it supported this concept. The system provided step-by-step guidance for "hot topics" - frequent IT problems that could be solved by walking the caller through the steps provided on the screen.

More important, it enabled the development of a knowledge base. As a problem is solved in the field, the field technician provides a step-by-step report of what was done along with keywords to help staff find that information when the problem arises again. The hope is that help desk staff can use this information to walk callers through their simpler problems and save the expense of sending technicians out to the remote communities.

Getting ahead: Ten young people signed on for Gavin Nesbitt's "tech specialist" certification course at Arctic College in Iqaluit. Only two earned the certification, but nine of the original 10 are currently working in IT in the government of Nunavut. "Any IT skills are better than none," Nesbitt says. "If you know anything, it puts you ahead."

Developing Inuit IT expertise is a long-term goal, says Smith. A more immediate concern is recruiting skilled people from anywhere to get the work done. "There's simply a small percentage of people who want to move into that climate," says Smith, who is now a consultant to the project office operating out of Ottawa. He laughs when he hears about the difficulties of recruiting IT folks in the south. "That's not hard," he says. "This is hard."

Although logistics present many challenges in Nunavut, they also provide opportunities for technology to make a huge difference in people's lives, Smith says. For example, because there are no hospitals in the territory, the government spends millions of dollars on airplane tickets to bring health care professionals into the communities and move patients out for diagnoses. Some communities are testing telemedicine workstations for specialties like dermatology that lend themselves to long-distance diagnostics.

Distance learning seems to be another natural for Nunavut, but both of these initiatives are hindered by the limitations of satellite communications. With rates as low as 64KB/sec., the satellite bandwidth in most Nunavut communities is less than that in most southern homes, Smith says. "The whole community has to run through that tiny little connection." That means if a telemedicine session is going on in a community, the school may not be able to get on the Internet, and the local government might not be able to process payroll checks.

Things will get worse before they get better because the more people who use technology, the more they will strain the available bandwidth. Some believe the government will eventually be forced to lay a cable throughout the territory, but that and many other decisions remain to be made.

Coffee to die for: One dark, cold winter day, the snow was blowing fiercely when Chisholm, on a whim, threw on her hooded coat and mittens and headed for the Fantasy Palace, so named because it's the only place in Iqaluit that serves southern dreams such as latte and cappuccino. About halfway through the 200-yard trek, she realized she had made a potentially fatal mistake. "The wind was really howling, and it was just so cold," she recalls. "I could actually feel my body shutting down. I suddenly realized I might not make it."

Despite the difficulties, the new government has already put a lot of technology in place, says Smith. There are about 1,500 workstations, with roughly 1,000 of them in Iqaluit. Most public servants who work indoors have Pentium-level PCs. There are about 50 servers in Iqaluit, not including print servers, and there are 10 more in the two regional offices. Every community has a nursing center, a public school and a high school - each equipped with at least one PC. Most communities have PCs in the libraries and in some municipal offices.

Despite a good deal of progress against the odds, Nunavut is not the kind of place that nurtures blue-sky optimism. When Smith looks to the future, he does so with the grit and realism of a frontiersman. "The easy applications have been done," he says. "The hard ones are left."

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