Westchester Alliance for Telecommunications and Public Access Meeting Report:
Japanese Municipal Officials Visit WATPA
October 29, 1997
It was my distinct personal pleasure to provide a "brief overview of WATPA" to eight prefecture and city government officials from Western Japan. This group is officially called the Civil Service Study Team #6. As part of their 10-day look at municipal government in the United States, they requested this meeting to learn about WATPA's role in affecting local government Internet policy and use.
The meeting was held October 29, 1997 at the Crowne Plaza - United Nations Hotel in Manhattan. In addition to the eight Civil Service Team members, an interpreter and a representative of the sponsoring agency were present.
Loose-leaf resource books (in English) containing WATPA's Mission Statement, descriptions of the creation and development of the PathMaster website, the TRONCOMM cable television programs on the impact and potential of internetworked local communities, excerpts from WATPA's New York State Archives and Records Administration grant application to build a county-wide online information exchange, and descriptions of various print and online government and community network resources were distributed to all attendees. These 72-page books provided the basis for the morning's discussion.
The "brief overview of WATPA" consumed about 90 minutes (including translation) and was followed by a Question & Answer period. Among the questions asked were these:
1) Does Local Government poll or survey the community before developing a government website?
In reply, I stated that in our experience it was interested local citizens who asked that local government provide such services, going so far as to provide volunteers to aid in their creation.
2) What is WATPA? How many members are there? How big is the staff? What are WATPA's activities? How big is the budget?
I believe the Civil Service Study Team was surprised to learn that WATPA is a grass-roots, volunteer organization that offers its expertise freely to its clients. Our local communities are fortunate to have an organization such as WATPA who's members have expertise in Law, Internet Technology and Services, Website design and development, Business, Education, Government and Information. I explained the working relationship that we enjoy with the Westchester Library System. Then I reviewed our recent activities, including the ongoing development of websites for local non- profit agencies, the Westchester County Board of Legislators Website and the provision of the Westchester League of Women Voters Voter's Guide, and the Small Business/Web Seminar. I explained that these resulted from the efforts of a relative handful of dedicated volunteers operating on a very limited budget. I think they were rightfully impressed. (I know I was; sometimes it takes getting up before a room and reciting accomplishments to clarify and reinforce for oneself all the neat things WATPA has done as it approaches its 5th
3) What would happen if a teacher posted a pupil's artwork on the net?
This question initially baffled me for I didn't see this as a problem. If an American student's work was selected for prominent display, be it in the school or on the net, most students (and parents) would be flattered. However, in Japan, such an act is considered an extreme invasion of personal privacy, an intrusion on the generally self-effacing societal characteristic found in Japan. Once I grasped this, I made the point that the same rules prevail in Cyberspace as in the "real" world - if that teacher had committed such an act with a copier, I presumed the teacher would be admonished. I suggested then that the teacher should be similarly punished for such an act involving the Internet.
This lead to some discussion of privacy and access issues, acceptable use policy development, technological fixes, the information trails left behind by credit-card use, supermarket club cards and more recently, the E-Z Pass issued by the MTA and Port Authority.
4) Do you have an example of an online government transaction?
Many municipalities are making local government information - agendas, minutes, schedules, official directories, etc. - accessible to the public via their home computers or via the Internet at the local library. Not many communities are yet transacting business electronically. Using the example of a Tree Removal Permit, a home user can access the permit form, download it, complete it but must then physically return it to City Hall with a check for processing. This does save the consumer of local government services an initial visit to City Hall, but it is a long way from fulfilling the promise of electronic government transactions.
5) What does WATPA want from Local Government?
Simply, WATPA wants electronic access to public information. WATPA advocates the creation of new public spaces electronically.
At this point, photos were taken, the Team was told that they should keep and use the Resource Books, complements of WATPA, and the speaker was embarrassed with two gifts of appreciation.