Cornhusker Computer Initiatives Earn Kudos


Cornhusker Computer Initiatives Earn Kudos

- Nebraska photo

"I'm not a technology wonk, but I respect technology and can anticipate what positive impact it can bring if we use it as a tool instead of a toy."

-Nebraska Gov.
Ben Nelson

By Dennis McCafferty
Staff Writer

When officials hooked up Brewster, Neb., to the state computer network, they thought it would be the biggest thing to hit the town of 22 since the opening of Uncle Buck's, a lodge and steak house where cowboys rope steers in back of the restaurant.

Nebraska officials discovered soon after the value-added network link was established there in the late 1980s that demand for the service was lagging. The system allowed Brewster residents to apply for car titles electronically at the local courthouse. It was set up on a Monday, but it wasn't until the following Friday that anybody in Brewster showed up at the courthouse to get a car title.

"There's just not a great demand in Brewster for high-performance fiber wiring,'' Rod Armstrong, state information technology coordinator, said with a laugh.

Recently, as the state looked to provide high-bandwidth fiber for 89 of its 93 county seats, officials figured Brewster could get by without the advanced technology.

Nebraska officials have been given credit in recent years for understanding both when and where large-scale information technology initiatives are going to work. The state is known for its long stretches of terrain without hills or valleys, but flat certainly isn't the word to describe the state's approach to IT. Nebraska is known for a host of innovative and sometimes off-beat solutions to problems that states across the country are facing.

"I'm not a technology wonk,'' said Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson, who confesses that his greatest personal achievement in technology was switching from a manual to an electric typewriter in college. "But I respect technology and can anticipate what positive impact it can bring if we use it as a tool instead of a toy. You need to use the right technology with the right purpose. You need to use it to expedite a much more cost-effective and efficient way to do what you want to do. It's true in government and it's true in business.''

At a seminar held in the greater Washington area earlier this year, there were as many heads nodding as there were chuckles as Armstrong described his state's ideas and successes in its estimated $75 million information technology ventures:

But innovations aside, the town of Brewster's experience mirrors that of the state. The consensus is that Nebraska's technology is well on track. It's the people who need to catch up with it, said Chris Hoy, the state's technology coordinator for community information.

A recent technology conference brought 100 workshop presenters to Kearney, Neb., one of the most wired areas in the state. Its integrated services digital network's bandwidth can support a number of high-end telecommunications tools, including voice/video transmission. But not one of the 50 vendors who attended asked for their booths to be hooked up to the network. They didn't have anything to show off that needed it, Hoy said.

As many states are finding, it's an evolution to get people acquainted and comfortable with the digital revolution.

"The biggest problem is going to be people, not stuff,'' Hoy said. "You could wire the United States by the next afternoon. Nothing would happen the next day that isn't happening now.''

Nebraska's Infotech Sketch
IT budget:
    The state hasn't officially tracked the spending for IT, but officials estimate it at $75 million to $100 million.
Projects include:

  • Increasing bandwidth for 89 of 93 counties on its state computer network.
  • Using $11.4 million in cigarette tax revenue to fund year 2000 computer compliance.
  • Converting public television satellite signals to digital, and selling freed up bandwidth space to other customers like the state of Michigan.
  • Establishing N-Focus, a streamlined social services benefits application system.

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