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The LA Times on Gov't helping communities organize

Another daunting Y2K task: Educating America's masses

March 4, 1999
Web posted at: 5:28 p.m. EST (2228 GMT)
CNN Interactive


(LA Times) -- Details of a new U.S. Senate report on the year 2000
software bug have revealed serious concerns about the readiness of
several U.S. economic sectors, including health care, oil, education,
farming, food processing and construction, among others.

A number of government agencies are woefully behind too, including the
departments of Defense and Energy and the Federal Aviation
Administration. The new report, one of the most comprehensive reviews of
the Y2K bug to date, was released this week at a news conference in
Washington called by the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000
Technology Problem.

By now, most experts, even the optimists, agree that many computer
systems vulnerable to the software date flaw will not be fixed by Jan.
1. And the draft copy of the Senate report says, ``The interdependent
nature of technology systems makes the severity of possible disruptions
difficult to predict.''

We've gone through three distinct phases of the year 2000 problem so
far. First was a phase of simply alerting people responsible for
computer systems to the nature of the bug. Next came the phase, which
many companies and other institutions are still in, of fixing software
by rewriting code or replacing programs and chips. And now, many
managers are in a third phase of contingency planning, sometimes called
``business continuity planning,'' which attempts to forecast possible
disruptions and prepare for them.

But now it's time for a fourth phase, one we're only beginning to see
unfold: public education and preparedness.

Most of the people who have been responsible for and knowledgeable about
the Y2K bug have been so busy fixing computers that they haven't had
time to think about how to educate the public, but they're beginning to
regard this as the most important task for the time we have left, which
is now just about 300 days. And it's a daunting task, unprecedented in
its scope and significance: how to educate each and every citizen of the
United States about a relatively arcane technical problem that many
citizens still do not understand or even know about. Many communities
throughout the U.S. are planning public education efforts, such as town
hall meetings, media campaigns, public service announcements, brochures,
and the engagement of churches, community organizations, schools and
private businesses. Useful material has been developed to support such
activities, especially the ``Y2K Citizens' Action Guide,'' a small
booklet published by the Utne Reader in Minnesota, available in
bookstores and on the Web.

The challenge of public education about Y2K is especially severe in a
city of the size and diversity of, for example, Los Angeles.

Frank Martinez, executive director of the city's Year 2000 Project
Office, a program of the city's Information Technology Agency, and his
team have been thinking about how to get the word out.

The City Council recently approved $100,000 to hire a professional
public relations firm to craft a multimedia campaign to educate the
public about Y2K in L.A. Martinez said his agency has received three
proposals and expects to hire a PR firm this month.

``We're hoping for a multimedia campaign with public service
announcements, material in libraries, police stations, social service
agencies and so on,'' Martinez says. His agency is sending people out to
community meetings and homeowners associations that request public
speakers on how to prepare for Y2K. Because of limited personnel,
Martinez and his staff are trying to get community organizations to hold
joint meetings.

The city has a toll-free telephone number with Y2K information
(888-356-4661), as well as a Web page with some useful tips about

``Our main message,'' Martinez says, ``is that the kind of preparation
we are recommending is the kind of preparation that should be done on a
regular basis if you live in Southern California.''

He means that people in the region should observe the same kind of
preparation for an earthquake or other natural disaster. That includes
storing food, water, emergency supplies, prescription drugs and cash for
up to a week. Cash reserves should be accumulated over the entire year,
rather than in November and December, he said.

``In addition, specific to Y2K, we are recommending that people have
good and accurate financial records, bank statements, credit card
records, insurance policies, etc., in hard-copy form and stored in a
safe place,'' Martinez said, adding that people should get in the habit
of keeping their gas tanks filled. Any concerns about specific devices,
he added, should be addressed to the manufacturer.

``We continue to believe that any disruptions will be relatively minor
and of short duration, and we think we can respond quickly,'' Martinez
said. However, Los Angeles is preparing for worst-case scenarios, he
noted, so all city agencies will be involved in an
emergency-preparedness exercise the last weekend in May.

Public officials responsible for the Y2K problem are faced with several
competing and vexing difficulties. They are typically charged with
fixing the Y2K bug in public-sector computers at the same time they're
supposed to be educating people about how to prepare, and both tasks are
full-time jobs. They need to strike a balance between alerting people
and not fostering unnecessary and dangerous panic. They have to
negotiate with some people who have alarmist agendas, and they have to
reach out to communities with diverse ranges of literacy, language,
familiarity with technology and capabilities. Low-income neighborhoods
have to be a priority, of course, because they're likely to be least
prepared and least able to set aside supplies they might need in an

Eric Utne, founder of the Utne Reader, sees a silver lining in this
crisis. He says in his publication's booklet: ``As we prepare for Y2K,
something surprising and quite wonderful is going to happen. We're going
to get to know our neighbors.'' This is one of those rare times,
encountered usually only in war or after a natural disaster, in which
the public-spiritedness of citizens will be tested, no matter what the
effects of the computer bug turn out to be. Every citizen who cares
about the quality of life in the nation should turn his or her attention
to how to help avert a crisis and build common bonds of trust and
preparedness. We have 300 days left to show how well we can work

(Gary Chapman can be reached at

Copyright © 1999, By GARY CHAPMAN
Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

© 1999 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.