Incompatible Gear Spells Trouble

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2004-01-28 Print this article Print

In order to keep information flowing, Mayordomo and his team of civilians must keep open the communications channels that connect 11,000 peacekeeping troops from more than 30 countries—a task compounded by the fact that many nations have brought in their own, incompatible computing gear. Any equipment failure could have disastrous consequences.

"Think of it," Mayordomo says. "Koidu is overrun by rebels, and were saying, Wait just a minute, someone is changing the network switch." If the rebels take to combat or hostage-taking, they wont allow a timeout for reconfiguring a piece of equipment.

While most corporate project managers might not have to worry about battling armed insurgents, many of the difficulties faced by the U.N. mission are similar to the hurdles faced by project managers looking to set up mobile computing environments in remote locations—unreliable power and communications lines that are vulnerable to harsh weather, limited availability of replacement parts and on-site support personnel, and remote users who dont comply with standards and procedures.

But Mayordomo also must deal with the rugged terrain of Sierra Leone—a tropical country slightly smaller than South Carolina thats dotted with forests, swamps and mountains almost 2,000 feet tall. There are few paved roads and only one airport with a paved runway. If computer equipment breaks down in Koidu, theres no running to CompUSA—a replacement has to be flown in.

Mayordomo, a Filipino who originally trained as a mining engineer, was recruited by a U.N. economic-development program in the late 1980s to consult on the use of software he had written to analyze the potential of a mine versus its operational cost. He switched to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in 1996, after funding for the mining project dried up, and served as a technologies manager to peacekeeping missions in the Republic of Georgia, the Central African Republic and Congo.

In 2000, he was named DPKOs chief of information technology—a title he still holds—and is responsible for computer-vendor and technology choices across all missions. But in June he gave up his New York office for a chance to get back into the field. "When Im in New York, I put things into effect but never get to see how its working," he says.

So now he splits his attention between setting DPKO technology plans and overseeing the practical details of keeping the systems in Sierra Leone functioning. While the scale of the mission is smaller, he has the freedom to blur some boundaries, particularly the one between information and communications technology—hard distinctions within the U.N.s bureaucracy. Next Page: Figuring out the best technologies for peacekeeping communications.

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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