From Evergreen State to cybersociety

In the nation's most wired state, Washingtonians find even mundane tasks are now digitized.

Every workday morning, as millions of Americans commute to their jobs, a growing number of Seattleites are avoiding the traffic, George Jetson-style.

While pouring their orange juice, they turn on their computers and call up www.smarttrek.com, a real-time map of the major traffic arteries in and out of the city. At 8:15 a.m., both bridges across Lake Washington are pulsing red - the indicator of bad traffic - and so they begin work at the kitchen table.

By 8:37 a.m. or so, when the sensors embedded in the roadway detect fewer vehicles per minute, the red changes to yellow or even green - indicators that traffic has lessened - and so these Emerald City residents grab their last bites of toast and choose the least congested routes to the office.

With technologies like this changing the way everyday citizens perform even the most mundane tasks, Washington is fast becoming the nation's first cyberstate. In part because of the climate fostered by Microsoft and the high-tech industry, in part because of its progressive heritage, and catalyzed by Gary Locke, its technophile governor, Washington is spending millions of dollars digitizing everything from the way businesses pay taxes to the way school principals shape classroom environments.

Last year, in its landmark report on the New Economy, the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., ranked Washington State No. 1 in digital governance, No. 2 in technology applied to schools, and No. 2 in digital economic indicators.

"We're trying to be as innovative as we can - to create a state government that's more cost effective, but also more convenient for citizens," explains David Danner, executive policy adviser to Governor Locke. "Technology allows us to do that."

Or, as the governor is fond of saying, the state wants to get people who are in lines online.

Budding entrepreneurs, for example, can apply for and receive all necessary licenses with just a few keystrokes. Once the business has cash flow, they can pay all fees and taxes online as well. Indeed, Washington was the first state to implement digital-signature legislation, allowing people to sign documents online.

Since 1996, the state has spent about $60 million to install what it calls the K-20 Network, a commitment that has brought high-speed data infrastructure to all of the state's 286 school districts, all universities, all two-year colleges, and eventually, all Washington libraries.

According to Mr. Danner, "Even the smallest school districts will have at least one T-1 line" - a high-capacity Internet connection capable of carrying 24 telephone lines or their equivalent.

"We want all the students in Washington to have access to resources so that they can get the skills they need," he adds. "If a student in Forks, Wash., wants to study Russian, he can't do it. Except that with this network, he can. Online."

Alongside the K-20 Network is the Smart Tools Academy, a program funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Its aim is to help all of Washington's school administrators use new technologies more effectively in their classrooms.

"It's a four-day residential training program for superintendents and principals," explains Marty Smith, volunteer chair of Smart Tools Academy and a Seattle attorney. "We've trained over a thousand to date, and have 18 sessions that we're running this summer to train the balance of them, about 2,000 total."

Besides cost savings and better public access, there is another reason for Washington's evolution from ecotopia to digitopia: the need to keep up with the demands of a sped-up society, used to faster computers, cellular phones, and overnight delivery.

"We are seeing a change in people's expectations - in how quickly they want things done," says Lee Cheatam, executive director of the Washington Technology Center, a nonprofit group funded partly by the state and dedicated to exploring electronic futures.

"There's just a difference in the way people expect to communicate," he says.

The virtual bricks and mortar of the digital state of Washington are being tamped into place rapidly. Locke has already convinced the legislature to expand advanced telecommunications systems into rural areas, which account for much of the state.

Now public utility districts and rural port districts may form partnerships with private enterprise in order to bring down the costs of such infrastructure and make it accessible to the hinterland residents and businesses.

And on June 22, Washington contracted with a Virginia-based technology firm to create an electronic shopping mall that permits agencies statewide to purchase everything from telephones to paper clips to tires at lower prices.

"We really want to capture time - precious staff time - and redirect it to frontline services," says Marsha Tadano Long, director of the Washington State Department of General Administration.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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