The Birth of Egypt's Information Society

Sherif Kamel, Ph.D
Visiting Assistant Professor
Regional Information Technology Institute
E-mail: skamel@ritsec1.com.eg

Abstract

This paper demonstrates the experience of Egypt in introducing and diffusing the concepts of Internet and the Information Highway. The paper reflects the emergence of the information, communication and computing tools and techniques as a strong vehicle for business, social and economic development. Living in an era of continuous changes with respect to different socio-economic perspectives affecting our lives, a vital issue arises reflecting the need to spread the awareness of information technology and its use in managing business and socio-economic development and change. In that respect, this paper describes the role played by Egypt through a government initiative supported by the private sector in the build-up of an information infrastructure of the various sectors in the economy using state-of-the-art information technology tools and techniques while accommodating to newly emerging issues such as Internet. The focus of the paper will be on the building blocks of the Internet and the information highway at large and its implications on the business development and the growth of the business exposure across national boundaries targeting the world as a global village. The paper demonstrates how such an ambitious objective required massive build-up of human, information and technological infrastructure and growing throughout the different development phases from information islands through infrastructure and infostructure and into the information society. Finally, the paper highlights critical success factors for the use of Internet technology in business development and widening the global market presence through notions of infrastructure build-up, realizing business inter-connectivity, establishing national, regional and international links, investing in people, building an on-line society, formulating an on-line business environment, which would yield to the build-up of a smart society that is triggered by the information technology and capable of competing and leap frog into the 21st century.

Introduction

Throughout the last decade, the world of research and business practices has been overwhelmed by the new information era with its concepts, technologies and services. This has been demonstrated through the amalgamation of information, communication and computing technologies. Recently, the focus has been on the concept of information highway and its potential for transforming the business and practices during the 21st century. Being a newly emerging business vehicle enabling international business transactions using different modalities and techniques has been also the focus of attention of many write-ups. Most of such literature has been descriptive and focusing on promoting technologies and services. Many of the articles and views were visions of what ought to happen going every day closer and closer to a cyber environment. However, a need arose to reflect such concepts into real life practices with tangible implications on our daily lives showing the positive and negative, direct and indirect effects on the use of the information highway in the business environment.

Throughout history, seldom has a subject attracted such attention from experts, researchers and practitioners and generated such volumes of literature in a relatively short span of time. It is perceived that the users of the Internet are growing by the minute making it one of the most demanded and exciting growing trends on planet, Earth. However, yet it yielded little insights and understanding of its real long-term implications on the business development plans and its impacts on the individual, the organization and the society at large. Most of the focus was on the unlimited, efficient and effective technological and highly sophisticated tools and techniques used in the development and implementation of such information highway which reflected the image and the feel that such concept will realize unprecedented services with a magical quality in the delivery. Therefore, it has been widely believed that such technologies and services will solve an individual's, a firm's, a society's and the entire world's business, economic, social and cultural problems, however this is yet to be proven in qualitative and quantitative measures.

The role of computing has been increasingly affecting our daily personal and professional lives since the inauguration of the personal computer revolution in the early 1980s. In recent years, emerging communications and inter-networking facilities yielded greater results becoming a way of life rather than an end or a tool/technique used. This paper attempts to focus on the business applications and implications of the information highway, the building-up of the information infrastructure, its challenges and opportunities and the actions to be taken in the future while embarking on the 21st century. The paper describes the Egyptian experience in building its information presence in the global market realizing business inter-connectivity and supporting in leveraging a booming economy, investing in human resources and establishing vehicles for cooperation with other countries using emerging and state-of-the-art information technologies. The paper attempts to present, demonstrate and share ideas and experiences in developing nation-wide information highways, its societal and economical impact on the development process, aiming at delivering a model for building an information society.

Historical background

Egypt, through its ancient history which extends over 3000 years BC has been witnessing massive information flows through different means since the era of the Pharaohs. Walking through history, life and development along the Nile was paralleled by a different type of an information society. This included inscription on stones, papyrus papers, Rosseta stones and the establishment of the library of Alexandria which was considered in ancient Egyptian history, the first largest and famous library world-wide. During the middle ages, Arabic manuscripts, documentation on Papyrus together with documentation on "Parchemin" which is a form of leather became one of the most common means for information dissemination. In the modern age, printing and publishing of paper started in Egypt during the 19th century which has witnessed the first publishing of the first Egyptian journal in 1826. A few years later in 1830, Egypt witnessed the establishment of the first national archive system.

During the 20th century and prior to 1985, a number of characteristics identified the status of the "information society" in Egypt. It was characterized and perceived as follows;

  • data rich … information poor,
  • accumulated bureaucracy … red tape,
  • computers viewed as ends … not means,
  • islands of innovation … no bridges,
  • focus on technical issues … not decision out comes,
  • poor multi-sectoral coordination,
  • no synergy between information and socio-economic development strategies; and,
  • brain drain.

Building Egypt's information infrastructure

Since the mid 1980s, the government of Egypt, has established a nation-wide information project targeting the build-up of its information infrastructure. This has been perceived as a critical success factor for building Egypt's business and socio-economic development plans. In that respect, the government had as a phased implementation plan to move from the information islands through infrastructure to info-structure and paving the way for the establishment of the information society. Initially, the experience of the Egyptian government with information gathering grew out of a need to provide information to the cabinet of Egypt that could be used in making decisions about Egypt's business, social, economic and development plans. In that respect, the cabinet of Egypt, Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) was formed in 1985 as part of an effort to manage information in a way that would accelerate socio-economic development. Later on, IDSC became an integral part of the national managerial and technological development plan developed and supported by the Cabinet of Egypt.

The mission of IDSC was to provide information and decision support services to the cabinet for socio-economic development planning and to improve the country's managerial and technological infrastructure through enhancing the decision making process. To realize such an ambitious mission, the objectives of IDSC, since its inception, included the following:

  • to develop information and decision support systems for the Cabinet and top policy makers in Egypt.
  • to support the establishment of decision support systems/centres in different ministries and make more efficient and effective use of the available information resources.
  • to initiate, encourage and support informatics projects that could accelerate managerial and technological development of Egyptian ministries, sectors and governorates.
  • to participate in international cooperation activities in the areas of information and decision support.

IDSC framework of activities was divided into three levels reflecting data accessibility to IDSC and information dissemination to different entities and organizations. The first level represented the cabinet base where information and decision support systems projects were developed to support the strategic policy and decision making processes in development planning. The second level represented the national nodes where IDSC linked the cabinet with existing information sources within the ministries, national organizations and agencies and academic institutions and research centres. The third level represented the international nodes where IDSC extended its activities by accessing major databases world wide through state-of-the-art information technology and telecommunications facilities.

The role of IDSC differed according to its four operational levels: the cabinet, sectoral, national and international;

  • at the cabinet level; it provided information and decision support, crisis management support, data modelling and analysis, multi-sectoral information handling and databases development.
  • at the sectoral level; it provided assistance in the development of decision support centres, advisory and consultancy services, sectoral database development and project financing and support.
  • at the national level; it provided assistance in policy formulation and drafting, legislative reform support and in the technical infrastructure development.
  • at the international level; it provided the facilities for technology transfer to Egypt, the establishment of decision support systems models for developing countries and the formulation of cooperation links and opening communication channels with international information agencies.

From that perspective, it is obvious that IDSC started as a think tank in Cairo for the cabinet and eventually it evolved into building-up a national information infrastructure and recently has been developed and formulated according to the emerging and current technologies to form Egypt's information highway linking Egypt together internally and externally to other countries and consequently to the global information society.

Egypt's information ROAD-MAP

Faced with the classical problems of developing countries such as; economic reform, public sector reform, heavy foreign debt, balance of payment deficit, high illiteracy rate, poor technological and telecommunications infrastructure, unemployment and the environment, Egypt has been striving to implement a nation-wide strategy to support the realization of its targeted socio-economic development objectives. Consequently, the government of Egypt adopted since the early 1970s a set of programs for socio-economic development which were built on an information perspective and that included;

  • Open Door Policy 1974
  • Economic Reform Program 1985
  • Information & Decision support Program 1985
  • National Information & Administrative Reform Initiative 1989
  • Building Egypt's Information Infrastructure 1994

Using a supply-push strategy for the development and implementation of large informatics projects aiming to realize socio-economic development using state-of-the-art information technology, the government of Egypt has realized the importance of establishing a comprehensive information base which can provide support for the cabinet in addressing different socio-economic issues. Hence, the government of Egypt formulated a program in 1985 that consisted of over 600 projects to date namely the information and decision support systems projects, responding to country development needs and covering an expansive variety of major economic, social, managerial and technological domains that are of vital importance to Egypt's growth.

This initiative represented the start-up in building Egypt's Information Highway and it was aiming at realizing;

…information for development…
…information as a tool of business development and market economy…
…information as the blood line of civilization….
…and…information as a vehicle to link Egypt to the global information society…

The information highway has been, to-date, defined as a high-speed network capable of carrying electronic data, text, graphics, audio, and video services into offices and homes. It is a system of interconnected networks providing universal access to basic and advanced communications and information services. Like the road system, it is a world-encircling grid, a network of many networks offering access to all kinds of destinations, different services, applications and data sources. Consequently, the information highway, is perceived as essential to Egypt's competitiveness as it allows Egyptian homes, businesses, governments, and institutions to be linked to a wide range of interactive services from entertainment, educational, and cultural products, to social services, databases, computers, and electronic commerce. As a guiding direction, Egypt's Information Highway is about making Egypt an active player in the global economy. Its mission, since its inception as a concept has been to support and enable Egypt to leap-frog into the information and knowledge-based era and empower its socio-economic and business development growth opportunities and capacities. The long term objectives of Egypt's information highway have been articulated as follows:

  • to provide a cost-effective vehicle for electronic dissemination of information to geographically dispersed and widely diversified audience.
  • to create a positive environment on the national information highway for the dissemination and exchange of information among various stakeholders in sustainable development.
  • to establish information highways in critical areas that would help energize socio-economic and business development
  • to contribute towards an open and shared access to the national information highway.
  • to ensure security and privacy of databases and users communications and provide a high degree of interoperability and reliability.

Egypt's information highway is wide and diversified due to the comprehensive and dynamic nature of information drawing from different sectors and issues such as; business, education, culture, tourism, and health among others. The mode of operation was formulated around the establishment of interest and working groups, each focusing on the accumulation of information required in addition to the management of inter-connectivity, development and maintenance of a specific sub-segment of the highway. http://www@idsc.gov.eg

Egypt's information highway building blocks

Egypt information highway initiative was launched in 1994 building on the info-structure and infrastructure build-up during the period 1985-1990. Since 1985, several sectoral and issue-based information and decision support systems were developed and implemented to assist top level decision makers in key socio-economic and business development issues. These issues included debt management, economic reform, legislation, public sector reform, tourism, healthcare, local governments, and employment among others. These information and decision support systems aimed at the provision of timely and accurate information to decision and policy makers to support them in the decision making process and to optimize the use of the available resources. Following is a breakdown of the building blocks of the information highway as perceived by the builder's of Egypt's information highway. It combines the major elements of the information highway in terms of information contents as well as infrastructure requirements. It is important to note that with the continuous developments in the areas of communications, computing and information, it is perceived that elements in the infrastructure could be altered based on the continuous developments and innovations. However, in the meantime, the model national information infrastructure includes; people, databases, communications and inter-connectivity and information networks.

People

The focus on people as a vital resource in Egypt driven by emerging information technologies on a nation-wide scale started in 1985. These efforts were shaped and put into perspective through the establishment of several national and regional training and professional development institutions governed by the Cabinet of Egypt, Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC). These institutions over the last decade helped design and deliver professional and academic educational development programs in information technology and management among other areas. The objective was to introduce and diffuse cutting-edge information technology into various organizational levels and business development activities. Such effort has resulted in training over 50,000 individual in 5,200 professional and academic programs serving around 800 government, public and private sector entities and accumulating over 1.5 million trainee-hours.

Database

Throughout the last decade, Egypt has witnessed a massive growth in the build-up of its information infrastructure through the development of information systems addressing key issues in the economy and linking it both vertically across sectors and horizontally across the nation at large. These information systems covered a large number of priority issues and sectors such as debt management, local administration, education, country economic indicators, and culture preservation among others. The essence of building these information systems was the formulation of Egypt's information infrastructure which led through a large number of informatics projects. These projects led to the build-up of Egypt's centralized debt management database monitoring and controlling Egypt's debts, building a nation's wide information-base for the performance of the public sector companies and monitoring the process of their restructuring and privatization, building Egypt's information system for legislation and decrees compiling over 62,000 laws since 1824, and establishing as a think-tank, an information and decision support system, for every minister and for every governor of Egypt's 26 governorates. These examples represent only a simple sample of the large formulation and developments of information systems and massive databases targeting the establishment of Egypt's institutional memory which exceeds over 600 projects designed, developed, implemented and institutionalized over the last decade.

Communications & Inter-connectivity

Egypt had also fully introduced the Internet making it one of the leading countries in Internet service and accessibility among developing countries. The objective was using it as a gateway to the world. In 1989, BitNet was already linking Egypt to the world. This was followed by the Internet which its introduction and diffusion has been massively penetrating Egypt as of October 1993 with the introduction of a gateway at the Egyptian Universities Network with the first three nodes at the Foreign Relations Coordination Unit (FRCU) in the Supreme Council of Universities, the Cabinet Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) and the Regional Information Technology and Software Engineering Center (RITSEC) in cooperation with Egypt Telecom (ARENTO).

In September 1994, Egypt's international digital link to the Internet was upgraded to 64kbit/sec, which paved the way for the establishment of the first Egyptian World Wide Web (WWW) site later in October of 1994. Since then, several upgrades of the digital communication infrastructure took place. Currently, there are several gateways available through satellite links as well as submarine cables, linking Egypt's digital backbone to the world. These gateways include: a gateway of the Egyptian Universities Network (Supreme Council of Universities) which mainly serve the education and scientific research sectors, a gateway of the Cabinet Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC), and a gateway of the Regional Information Technology and Software Engineering Center (RITSEC) in cooperation with Egypt Telecom, which serve the government, non-governmental organizations and the commercial sectors.

These gateways helped broaden the accessibility of the Internet in Egypt and supported digital communication with the rest of the world. In April 1996, 11 private sector companies (Internet Service Providers-ISPs) have started offering Internet services to the general public. This number has reached 19 during early 1997 with locations in Cairo, Alexandria and Sinai. Since the launching of the first Egyptian world wide web in October of 1994, several programs and projects that aim at establishing of Egypt Information Highway were carried out. Target areas of application include: education, culture, tourism, healthcare, environment, employment, government services, trade and business among others. Such projects had a significant impact on the socio-economic development in Egypt, allowing: manufacturers to reach new markets to import their raw material and to export their products, traders to access timely financial data and stock market information, physicians to consult remotely with specialized healthcare centers, tourists to efficiently plan their travel in Egypt, researchers to access timely publications and up-to-date databases, and students to learn about other countries and cultures.

Currently, the number of Internet users in Egypt is estimated to be more than 35,000 users, including 14,000 users in the commercial sector, 13,000 users in the academic sector, and 8,000 users in the government sector. With an estimated number of registered domains including 70, 180 and 25 in the governmental, commercial and educational domains respectively. Internet users include: private companies, trade organizations, travel agencies, governmental agencies, environmental agencies, universities, schools, hospitals, and healthcare professionals, individuals and others. Egypt has been during 1995 the 4th country in the world in the relative growth of the users of the Internet. The Internet is viewed as a medium for providing access to new markets for import and export activities, facilitating distance education and learning, supporting remote cooperation and maximizing the utilization of scarce resources, especially for rural areas. One the major factors in spreading the use and knowledge about the Internet in the Middle East region was the organization, by IDSC, RITSEC and RITI of the 1st Internet Conference and Exhibition which tool place in Cairo in early 1996 and became ever since and annual event attended by around 1,000 and 3,500 respectively in the conference sessions and the exhibition.

Information Networks

Egypt's information highway includes as info-structure a number of components including; trade network, legislative network, employment network, culture network, education network, health Network and Governorates network. Theses networks are designed to provide information accessibility to policy and decision makers, the business society and the research community with a focus on key priority issues related to business, social, economic and cultural development. Following are sample examples of information networks that include among others; health, public administration, tourism and culture.

GOVERNORATENET; while aiming for an accelerated socio-economic development will inter-network Egypt's governorates offering an information architecture, supporting the decision making process, managing crisis situations and planning for socio-economic development. Moreover, the network will design and build an intra-governorate sub-ways linking each governorate vertically with its local cities and villages.

Egypt is divided into 26 governorates, each working within a coordinated plan established by the central government. GovernoratesNet was launched to encourage and support socio-economic development and to act as a main information resource on Egypt. It provides basic statistical information on Egypt's administrative divisions. It also acts as a promotional reference for tourism and investment opportunities. http://www.idsc.gov.eg/govern

Objectives

  • to establish a national information base on Egypt's administrative divisions, their infrastructure, natural resources, etc.
  • to establish a frame of reference for governmental decision support.
  • to act as a catalyst for tourism.
  • to attract investors by highlighting the new investment opportunities.

Services

  • to provide statistical information on each governorate including; geographical, demographical, agricultural, industrial, tourism, public services, infrastructure, labor force, and unemployment.
  • to facilitate the search for investment opportunities.
  • to provide directories of tourism accommodation and services.

Users

  • government officials and decision makers.
  • investors.
  • tourists.
  • researchers and students.

CULTURENET; a network for cultural preservation, which aims at addressing a variety of issues that relates to cultural preservation and the protection of Egypt's historical heritage and which dates back across different cultures and eras. CultureNet reflects the employment of the information, computing and communication technologies for cultural preservation and dissemination.

The heritage of a nation and its treasures reflect the diversity of cultures, traditions, people, and languages. They are the mirror of a nation and its memory. Egypt's cultural heritage is fabulously rich. Creating awareness and disseminating information on our culture has therefore become an essential goal to achieve. CultureNet aims at providing information about Egypt on the Internet to promote its treasures and cultural heritage worldwide. CultureNet acts as a central resource for Egypt's cultural community by providing a wide spectrum of services ranging from traditional navigation through the different sites, database query to specialized advice in the field of culture or information systems application in culture related projects. Connecting major Egyptian museums, libraries, and cultural institutions to a common communication infrastructure will provide researchers and authorities with links to existing databases and other resources available on the Internet. http://www.idsc.gov.eg/culture

Objectives

  • to create global cultural awareness about Egypt.
  • to preserve Egypt's cultural infrastructure.
  • to promote Egypt as a major player in the Information Technology arena.
  • to connect cultural institutes and major museums together via Internet.

Services

  • to provide www accessibility to enable users to disseminate their local information for external reviewers.
  • to provide access to regional and international cultural resources.
  • to provide a Bulletin Board for information exchange among the users.

Users

  • cultural institutions.
  • ministries and different authorities.
  • researchers and students.
  • museums experts.
  • worldwide navigators.

HEALTHNET; targeting a healthier 50 public hospitals across the country will be connected enabling interchange of medical records, textual, images and video consultations. The network will save time and money and will ensure proper Medicare services at remote sites aiming at enhancing and improving the health services in various geographical locations in Egypt with a focus on the local administrations. HealthNet should raise awareness among the medical community in Egypt through holding seminars, workshops and medical conferences in addition to the development of an electronic mailing list for members to facilitate interaction.

The idea has emerged due to the growing progress in medicine that has compelled members of the Egyptian medical community to establish a source of information on the latest progress, achievements and technologies used in the healthcare domain. In 1995, HealthNet was developed to foster the development of a healthcare information infrastructure and help develop a "hands on" networking culture in Egypt's healthcare community. Its advisory board includes physicians, university professors and other Healthcare professionals. HealthNet has taken the leading role to carry and disseminate medical information on Internet with the desired level of security. In addition to encouraging communication and partnership among key players, the HealthNet experience highlights the potentials of existing technologies to aid in the provision of all aspects of healthcare services and medical research.

Objectives

  • to support the establishment of national multimedia-based medical databases.
  • to provide remote access to regional and international medical databases.
  • to provide secured access to medical records.
  • to enable collaboration through telemedicine.
  • to provide new tools for learning and training.
  • to provide access to information on current medical research and events.

Services

  • to provide e-mail and ftp capabilities for medical and healthcare professionals.
  • to provide 24-hours accessibility to medical databases in hospitals, clinics, medical schools, and healthcare facilities.
  • to provide world wide web accessibility to enable users to place their local information for external review and to allow access to other regional and international resources.
  • to enable video-conferencing capability to support remote collaboration among medical and healthcare professional.
  • to save patients' travel time and reduce their medical expenses through telemedicine while improving the quality of healthcare especially in rural areas.

Users

  • medical schools and centers.
  • physicians.
  • medical equipment and pharmaceutical companies.
  • healthcare providers; medical laboratories, insurance companies, blood and organ banks.

HealthNet was initiated by the Egyptian Cabinet Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) and supported by the Ministry of Health to facilitate communication and information exchange among physicians, healthcare providers, and patients in Egypt. It is part of Egypt's Information Highway and currently provides its local users with a gateway to international communication and information networks via the Internet. HealthNet is establishing on-line multimedia databases on Egyptian physicians, medical centers, medical equipment companies, pharmaceutical companies, medical laboratories and other healthcare providers. A special focus is on supporting telemedicine and using video-conferencing tools to facilitate remote collaboration among physicians and increase access to specialized medical facilities.

The network's mission is to help achieve a more efficient, effective and affordable healthcare by utilizing state-of-the-art information technology realizing increasing accessibility to medical services. http://www.idsc.gov.eg/health

TOURISMNET; the ancient Egyptian civilization, the main source of our cultural heritage, is by far the world's richest ever known civilization. TourismNet is an ambitious project aiming at promoting Egypt by offering a walk through Egypt's history and treasures. TourismNet offers unprecedented potential for Egypt travel and tourism industry to reach millions of people worldwide with information about specific travel and tourism opportunities. By using this electronic communications system, travel agencies, organizations, and private businesses can cost-effectively deliver travel-related information to a global audience. http://www.idsc.gov.eg/tourism

Objectives

  • to support Egypt's tourism services.
  • to promote Egypt's tourism infrastructure, hotels, restaurants, and the different attractions.
  • to provide a comprehensive tourism guide for tourists and travel agents.

Services

  • to assist travelers and tourists in travel planning.
  • to provide a Bulletin Board for tourism information.
  • to support on-line reservation in different hotels, cruises, etc.

Users

  • tourists.
  • tourism chambers.
  • tourism promotion authority.
  • tourism agencies

Moreover, there are a number of sectors and issue-based network that are included in Egypt's information highway such as; Educational Network (Edunet) addresses the intellectual generation through internetworking 200 public schools across Egypt 26 governorates. Its impacts will be reflected in enlightening tutors, scholars and teachers with different methods and techniques developed and implemented in different locations and enable the exchange of experience. Trade network (TradeNet) addresses a prosperous society linking buyers and sellers anytime and anywhere and bridging the gap between Egypt and both regional and global markets. TradeNet will also enable competitiveness and market responsiveness. Legislative network (LADIS) addresses a righteous society through internetworking national courts, judges, lawyers as well as legal researchers to an integrated legislative information systems which comprises a number of databases that include 64,000 laws and legislation from 1824 to date. Employment network (WorkNet) addresses an employed society and attempting to match the workforce with job opportunities. In that respect, it will try to narrow the physical, geographical and economic gaps available in the society. Consequently, it will energize market forces through the interaction between the demand and supply forces in a free market economy.

Information Highway Developments & Global Trends

The concept of the information highway, since its inception, has been characterized and affected by three main global directions. These directions are reflected through a series of trends that relate to technology, business and the economy. It is important to note that the changes that occurred globally throughout the last few decades in these three directions coupled with the developments in the information technology related aspects such as information, computing and communication have led and contributed in the development of the concept of the information highway. Following is a description of some of the developments and changes that took place and had remarkable implications on the business, social, economical and cultural environments world wide.

Technology

The trends in technology have been increasingly affecting our daily life over the last two decades. The revolution in information, computing and communication has been directly and indirectly affecting the business as well as non-business aspects of our lives such as education, health, research, among others. These trends were mainly highlighted by the computer and communication mixing revolution with the notions of networking and inter-networking, the multimedia and the business inter-connectivity and doing business across national borders in an increasingly rate enabled and facilitated through these developments. From another perspective, the concept of the global village and the ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere and anytime through global accessibility and service operators.

Business

The trends in the business environment have been increasingly diversified over the last few years disseminating notions of competing in time, the development of comparative advantages, the ability to timely response to market changes and timely marketing in addition to the capacities and resources to explore the benefits of both broadcast marketing as well as one-to-one marketing. Moreover, focusing on business development operations on the aspects and requirements to ensure maximum consumer satisfaction and investment in consumer service orientation. Based on the elements mentioned above and capitalizing on the developments in the market place, there has been a shift from physical to intellectual capital and the accumulation of efforts and needs that contribute to the development of an on-line society.

Economy

The trends in the economy have been similarly affected by the developments in the various services and manufacturing sectors. The world has been moving towards a market economy and the investment in economic reform, restructuring and privatization. Generally, there has been a shift from goods to services that has been reflected in the shift from wealth that was based on natural resources such as oil to intellectual capital such as information, knowledge and software development and enhancement. There has been an increasing intensity in the accumulation and user of information, as a resources for production and delivery of various products and services which led also to the leveraging the development and growth processes.

Emerging Business Development Environments

The information age has been instrumental in developing new arms for business development. From that perspective, the information highway has been facilitating the way we do business and the way we communicate with other institutions and organizations. The information highway as a concept and as an application provides numerous opportunities for business development. An important question that might be asked, what is it for business? The answer would include major aspects such as; the transformation of business transactions world wide, the development of easier software interfaces to be used, the formulation of a global network of suppliers, consultants and customers and the establishment of a more decentralised business development market place.

The information highway will function as an emerging business tool. A tool that will be available and accessible by individuals as well as various types of organizations with small, medium and large sizes of operations. It is perceived that the business environment operating within a global environment, through an information-based economy, will have direct implications on providing networking, increased and improved productivity, realizing information sharing across different organizations making information publicly available and pooling additional international business opportunities. This will also imply providing business inter-connectivity through visual and textual means of communications realized through electronic mailing, file transfers, video and desk-top conferencing, which are a sample representation of the available opportunities enabled by the new trends and tools in information technology.

The forecasts for the coming decade shows dramatic increases in the number of users of the information highway world wide across different domains and pooling from different perspectives and needs. The markets interested in such wealth of information relates to different domains and various professions. In that respect; there are a number of trends that are growing on the Internet and that relates to the business development environment. This includes; on-line financing, on-line trading, distance education, and electronic commerce among others. The following section reflects some of the ideas and aspects that relate to one of the growing trends over the Internet which is; "electronic commerce".

Electronic commerce is one of the fastest growing areas on the Internet. It follows the notion of doing business on the Internet. This issue is booming on the Internet in massive formats. This has been reflected into a number of aspects including; the number of mail orders, the shopping malls on the Internet, the easiness to reach a larger variety through remote accessibility. From another perspective, such facility has been provided with a number of value-added returns including; relatively lower costs, direct access to a larger market place, on-line information accessibility, reaching out to a global market, availability of instantaneous response from customers and the provision of a global trading and investment opportunities. In one of his speeches Bill Gates said: "electronic documents and networks offer businesses opportunities to improve their information management, service and internal and external collaboration". From that perspective, the Internet is changing the traditional way of doing business and electronic commerce is redefining how business will be conducted in the future. This will be the momentum and the mechanism of doing business in the 21st century. The world is moving into a virtual business environment where businesses will be mainly conducted through state-of-the-art information networks and transactions will be vastly conducted on-line.

A number of factors will affect the concept of electronic commerce. These factors will include; technology, the organization and the individuals. From a technological perspective, the improvement of various tools and techniques especially hardware and software technologies, the development of communication technologies, the portability of various information, computing and communication technologies, the independence from heterogeneous platforms, the availability of efficient and effective browsers and built-in web software, the provision of user-friendly and simple web technology and finally the improvements on the web servers.

From an organizational perspective, the need for a minimal initial investment, the global exposure, the availability of on-line services, the possibility of document digitization, paperless organizations and corporations, and having the business reaching customers in their homes. And finally, from an individual perspective; a 24 hours shopping/7 days a week, privacy of shopping, on-line access anywhere and anytime related to information exchange, and entertainment among other added-values. For the above mentioned reasons, it is appropriate to say that every day more and more businesses are joining the Internet by creating web sites to advertise and offer their products and services on a global market place and reaching out to a massive market size.

The building-up of a community that is interested and willing to invest and develop business on the Internet will always be based on the current data elements and statistics on the status of the Internet. In that respect, it is important to note that at the end of the 1st quarter in 1997 the market volume of the Internet revealed the following figures; a global village of up to 50 million users/organizations connected, business inter-connectivity available in most countries providing accessibility anytime, anyhow and anywhere, over 1.5 million sites world wide, 100,000 Internet related jobs created during the previous 12 months period, world wide market place in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia and a potential for a limitless expansion in the market size during the next decade. These figures indicate that as we approach the 21st century, most businesses will exploit vehicles such as the Internet to reduce costs, save time, remove distances and open new markets while aiming at a global outreach. The Internet and electronic commerce are perceived to have the potential to provide such an opportunity for expansion, for growth and more importantly for business development using new techniques and new mechanisms. For business development and businessmen doing business on the Internet could be a dictionary, an information resource, a knowledge base, an encyclopedia, a mail box, a networking vehicle, a sales tool, an electronic mall, a marketing arm and an advertising media among others.

Electronic commerce, as a concept, promises to introduce a change of pace unparalleled since industrial revolution introducing implications affecting researchers, educators and businesses at large. Such new environment will need organizational re-structuring and re-adaptation. It has evolved as a normal development of the massive investment in cyber technologies and paving the way for buyers and sellers to exert their transactions faster, easier and more efficient over the Internet. To date many companies are already doing business in the cyberspace. Forecasts imply that electronic commerce could reach us$6.9 billion by the year 2000. Examples of which could include; in the travel industry; buy and sell tickets and make reservations; in trading, brokers could trade securities; in banking, a massive increase in electronic transactions; in the industry, software sales; and in entertainment, selling movies, music and books.

Electronic commence has a number of characteristics that relate to the introduction of unconventional buying environment, creating an on-line buying and selling of goods and services, formulating a market system based on trust, fear of using credit cards over the net, and the need for safer commerce over the net. These are and will be for some time to come concern for the users and the providers of the commercial services over the Internet. On the other hand, there are a number of electronic commence drawbacks that characterizes the newly business development vehicle which relates to the lack of structure, lack of control, web overload, minimizing social encounters safety over the net, cyberspace hackers and viruses among many others.

Electronic commerce, at large, provides opportunities for paperless and distanceless fast trading. Thus, firms and businessmen must make optimum advantage of such a fact or they will be left behind and their business operation will start loosing ground to other competitors come the 21st century with its new trends in doing virtual business transactions. This new environment that will be available for every body, everywhere, anytime to shop, work, play, learn and invest.

Information Highway Challenges

There are a number of challenges that face the development and the realization of an information highway. These challenges need to be translated into opportunities in order to realize the targeted objectives from the design and development of an information highway. These challenges are better described through a series of "questions and answers" that in the Egyptian experience helped formulate the framework of operations and activities of Egypt's information highway. Following is a listing of inquiries that could help setting the stage for realizing the framework and magnitude of the operationalization of a country's information highway; what is it, what are the policies and strategies to be used, what are the specific targets, what are the legal implications, hat are the economic implications, what are the social implications, what are the cultural implications, what is the infrastructure required; nationally and internationally, what is the info-structure required, what are the human aspects, what are the market/marketing implications, what are the business development rewards, what are the constraints, hat are the added-values, what is the size of the market place, what are the competitive advantages, how can we solve the security and privacy issues, and how can we meet the language problems among many other questions that need answers.

Building an Information society

The growing trends in today's global environment and the importance of timely, relevant and accurate information has contributed in the shaping and building of an Information Society. The essence is the formulation of smart societies globally. The world has been flattened by the forces of technology information, business and economics. It has been a phased development cycle where a revolution has been shaped which witnessed the convergence of technology, the technology of telecommunications and economics and the economics of a global economy. All backed up and supported by an information revolution and a need to enlarge the scope and size of the business market. This has led to the move towards the concept of a global village. This has been also developed by a study conducted by the San Diego State University, California implying; the world moving towards global inter-connectivity, cities and regions world wide will be contributing in the information-led economies and it will be an ultimate target for everyone to join in otherwise he will be left behind in the development and growth of the new information-led global environment. In the existing literature there is an enormous gap in the availability of information technology capacities between the industrialized societies and the developing world where, according to the World Telecommunications Development Conference, many countries in the developing world still lack the basic forms of technological infrastructure. However, with all the gaps that exist between the north and the south none is growing faster than the information gap which reflects the different role and usage of information in these societies. However, with the innovation of the information highways concept and application with its social, cultural, and political implications, there are strong potentials and opportunities to narrow the gap. In that respect and for that reason, the benefits of an information economy are already being realized by some countries of the south.

Thus, Egypt has taken aggressive steps to ensure that its citizens will benefit from the information revolution. Conversely, some industrialized countries are facing difficulties in extending these benefits to those members of their population who are poor or otherwise disadvantaged. The implications are likely to be felt most acutely in the areas of employment and education. They will have a profound effect on the ability of individuals worldwide to participate in tomorrow's society which will be based on the diffusion and implementation of the latest information technology and communications concepts, tools and techniques. Therefore, policy and decision makers should focus on the impact such information society would have on individuals in their societies and shape the policies, governance and technology accordingly.

The creation and use of information to be carried on the information highway has been defined to meet the needs of individuals in industrialized or newly industrialized societies. However, there were a number of attempts in the developing world to use information in areas such as intellectual property rights which is inconsistent with the use of information in developing countries. Thus, information is largely irrelevant to the 3 billion people who are on the margins of the society. In that respect, while aiming for sustainable development goals in the developing world, information used should reflect their values rather than those of the developed nations. One of these values is the need for people to be able to look forward to a sustainable livelihood.

Currently, Egypt in its plan to develop and implement an information highway has been developing a comprehensive program to introduce and diffuse an information highway technology and infrastructure and to bridge the gap between developing countries and the developed world. In that respect, the objectives of the use of accurate and timely information could be formulated as to; encourage private investment, realize effective economic reform, improve productivity, lead to advanced education and training, promote efficient public services, improve health care, optimize use of natural resources, provide and protect competition, avoid creating information "have's" and "have nots", lead to a market driven with products and services primarily for the private sector and establish an adequate protection for individual rights. To realize this strategic mission, massive objectives, numerous plans, projects and activities needed to be developed and implemented. Therefore, the government of Egypt, thought of investing in Egypt's most precious and vital resource, people, as representing the builders of Egypt's history, the driving force of its present and the vehicles for development and growth in the future. From that perspective, a purpose-approach was developed to identify the key elements affecting the development of the information society. This included the identification of societal directions related to education, learning and knowledge sharing and the exploration of how societies learn to generate, evaluate, select and share vast, new, and relevant information.

In the case of Egypt, the government, partnering with the private sector have taken the initiative to introduce computers in school education using a bottom-up approach. This initial move has been within a larger plan to establish information technology institutes targeting training and professional development of elite software developers to leap frog with the society into the 21st century and keep pace with the developments taking place world wide. Moreover, the establishment of information technology centers targeting educating and training critical masses. The essence of all these efforts was the diffusion of the importance of the issue of timely, relevant and accurate information for sustainability, for development and for growth.

What's next?

The emerging and continuous developments in the areas related to information technology is pushing all societies to think about the future. Therefore, Egypt, in its attempt to enlarge its information-based society and capitalizing on solid grounds and resources, has formulated an action agenda for the year 2000 that aims towards the operationalization of full-fledged information highway, the purpose of which is to identify the society's needs and requirements for business, social, economic and cultural development. Following is a set of elements that are vital for establishment of Egypt's information highway;

  • building the infrastructure; developing a full-fledged national information infrastructure with information centers in organizations throughout Egypt's 26 governorates, 520 local administration and over 8000 cities and villages.
  • building the infostructure inter-connectivity; developing value-added information networks between government organizations, the public sector and the private sector.
  • building linkages nationally, regionally and globally; building inter and intra channels of on-line connectivity with the world.
  • building people; training and educating the society in different organizations, across various geographical locations and cultural barriers.
  • building an on-line society; establishing on-line trading, on-line investment and on-line financing facilities.
  • building an IT-industry; boosting the economy through the development of a high-tech industry that could keep pace with the innovations taking place world wide.
  • building a smart country; formulating high-tech projects based on emerging information technologies such as smart ID cards, smart organizations and a smart society.
  • building Egypt's information highway; addressing different areas and sectors in the economy, leading Egypt to access the world and becoming an active player with a vital role in the global information highway.

There are a number of developing countries like Egypt which have adopted an information-based perspective in national business, social and economic development through the establishment of a technological infrastructure and the bringing of information to their citizens to empower them to participate in the decision making process of key issues in the country. The most important roles to be played in the information age will be those of the government and the private sectors. This role will be determined by how will governance be exercised in the information-based world? In that respect, while the framework has yet to be defined, information highway services will probably be provided by the private sector with governments providing a supporting regulatory framework based on greater public participation and consensus which has been a guiding formula in the Egyptian experience.

It is important to note that development of the information society cannot be left to market forces, it deserves and needs the attention of the highest political decision-makers. In that respect, countries should prioritize information needs for business and socio-economic development in the same way as they do for different sectors such as industry, agriculture and health. Consequently, the national governments have a responsibility to take a strategic view in facing the coming information intensive world. These strategies should include; creating a shared vision of the new communication era, intensifying the process of information acculturation, generating the necessary human resources, strategic planning and management, accelerating the development of the communications infrastructure, technology assessment and forecasting; and, initiating and facilitating organizational restructuring.

The integration of the information, communications and computing developments with other business, social and economic policy goals is one of the priority issues globally. Therefore, a vision needs to be formulated related to the future of information highways which should go beyond the reform and technological upgrading of the information and technological infrastructure. This is aimed at achieving potential benefits from the application of advanced electronic communications in the economy and society. Countries world wide will have different priorities in the transformation process and in the use of information highways for business, social, economic and cultural development and these priorities will change over time. However, the success in achieving pervasive developments is the proper design and delivery of applications that would best fit the societal needs of the sectors targeted. In any case, special attention would have to be directed to human and professional development especially, the skills and knowledge base needed to provide employment in an information society and the incentive needed to provide both the ability and the willingness for citizens to participate in an information society.

Unless these prerequisites are available and efficiently maintained, the information society will not yield its targeted objectives through Information Highways. These lessons and guidelines have been the driving forces in building Egypt's information highway which stemmed from the targeted strategic objective to the realization of the birth of Egypt's Information Society and the transformation from information islands….….through infra-structure….to info-structure…..and to the information society.


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