Starting cold in Nunavut

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 said, “but you have to switch to whatever comes up. It’s hard.”

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.

Go north, young man

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 said. 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 said. Everyone else who needs you – from your boss to your family – has to wait.

The environment dictates and hinders technology. When aeroplanes 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.

“There’s really nothing that you can depend on,” Smith said, 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,” he said, “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.

The new government has mandated that by 2010, 85 per cent 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 said. “It’s not the time off the job; it’s the aeroplane 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.”

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 said.

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.

Developing Inuit IT expertise is a long-term goal, said 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,” said 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 said. “This is hard.”

Making a difference

Although logistics present many challenges in Nunavut, they also provide opportunities for technology to make a huge difference in people’s lives, Smith said. For example, because there are no hospitals in the territory, the government spends millions of dollars on aeroplane 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 said. “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.

Despite the difficulties, the new government has already put a lot of technology in place, said 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 centre, 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 said. “The hard ones are left.”