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First Friedman, Then Kristof: Is There Something in the Water at the Times?

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I'm still pinching myself to make sure I'm not dreaming.

For the second time in one week, the New York Times op-ed page has shined a light on the technological challenge and opportunity facing New York City, and the rest of America.

First it was Thomas Friedman's column "Calling All Luddites." Whatever you may think of Friedman's foreign policy views, he clearly understands how the Internet and network-centric behavior is changing everything, and how important it is that we wake up to the challenge and the opportunity that this presents.

I'm hard at work trying to get New Yorkers to see how robust communications can make us safer (such as being able to call 911 from underground in the subways, or enabling firefighters to download a building blueprint on the way to a fire), smarter (the city ranks a dismal 41st in its use of computers in school, which means that a kid growing up in South Korea has faster and better access to the U.S. Library of Congress than a kid in the South Bronx or Soho), and more economically secure (major cities in Asia are eating our lunch when it comes to lowcost high-speed Internet access).

Plus it's time that we used new technology and the power of networking to re-invent government to make it more open, transparent, accountable and efficient. That's why I'm calling on people to photo-blog things in the city that need fixing, like potholes, broken street-lamps, dangerous electrical hazards, dirty playgrounds, and help us build a dynamic interactive map of what we see with our own eyes and ears. (Check it out at WeFixNYC.com.)

So it was quite gratifying to read Friedman's column, especially where he writes:

The technological model coming next -- which Howard Dean accidentally uncovered but never fully developed -- will revolve around the power of networks and blogging. The public official or candidate will no longer just be the one who talks to the many or tries to listen to the many. Rather, he or she will be a hub of connectivity for the many to work with the many -- creating networks of public advocates to identify and solve problems and get behind politicians who get it.

Then in Sunday's paper, columnist Nicholas Kristof throws down the gauntlet as well. In "When Pigs Wi-Fi," he describes driving through the cowboy country of eastern Oregon, where "kiss the pig" contests at schools involve real pigs, and using his laptop "to get e-mail and download video -- and you can do that while cruising at 70 miles per hour, mile after mile after mile, at a transmission speed several times as fast as a T-1 line." Kristof adds:

This kind of network is the wave of the future, and eastern Oregon shows that it's technically and financially feasible. New York and other leading cities should be embarrassed that Morrow and Umatilla Counties in eastern Oregon are far ahead of them in providing high-speed Internet coverage to residents, schools and law enforcement officers -- even though all of Morrow County doesn't even have a single traffic light. [Emphasis added.]

The whole column is worth reading, but here's Kristof's central point:

...we need to envision broadband Internet access as just another utility, like electricity or water. Often the best way to provide that will be to blanket a region with Wi-Fi coverage to create wireless computer networks, rather than running D.S.L., cable or fiber-optic lines to every home. So if the first step was to get Americans wired, the next step is to make them wireless.

I couldn't agree more.

Kristof also illustrates how useful a highspeed wireless network can be to enhance our safety and security -- two big reasons why we need to Wi-Fi NY as soon as possible. In eastern Oregon, the system was built in part to deal with the potential of a release of toxic gases from an Army chemical weapons depot in the area. If nerve gas ever got out, the wireless computers carried by local police would enable them to receive real-time video images and data on the toxic cloud's speed and direction. In addition, "if there's a report of a burglary, the police rushing to the scene can download floor plans of the building, live images from video monitors and information about the alarm system."

Do you sense the zeitgeist shifting? I think I do!