Gulf Coast Rebuilding Presents Tech Opportunities As New Orleans continues its rebuilding efforts six months after Hurricane Katrina, private and federal groups are seeing chances for innovation. Mario Armstrong talks to Farai Chideya about the potential opportunities for technological growth in the Gulf Coast.

Gulf Coast Rebuilding Presents Tech Opportunities

Gulf Coast Rebuilding Presents Tech Opportunities

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As New Orleans continues its rebuilding efforts six months after Hurricane Katrina, private and federal groups are seeing chances for innovation. Mario Armstrong talks to Farai Chideya about the potential opportunities for technological growth in the Gulf Coast.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

Earlier in the show, NPR's Farai Chideya brought us a report on the status of the rebuilding of New Orleans. Now she's returned for an update on the technological reconstruction of the same.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Six months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, rebuilding has barely begun. Earlier in today's program, we spoke about the process and questions of race, class, and politics playing a role in the remaking of the city, but in this debate, very little has been said about one of the new opportunities: the possibility of making the big easy the high tech city of the future. I'm joined now my NEWS AND NOTES' tech contributor, Mario Armstrong to talk about the possibilities of a wired New Orleans; welcome, Mario.

MARIO ARMSTRONG reporting:

Hi, Farai, how are you?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. So let's jump right into this. Parts of New Orleans were leveled; what kind of opportunity does this present for companies like Cable Wireless Broadband to build from the ground up?

Mr. MARIO ARMSTRONG (Reporter, WYPR and WEAA): Yes, it presents a massive opportunity. Many of the technologists that are out there, those that are in the technology community, and those that are just surrounded by technology and innovation say look, this is really an awesome opportunity to shine the value, if you will, of technology. They really want to look at more innovative ways.

One suggestion was satellite-based communications to offer a non-wire option and wireless has been an opportunity, folks are saying. But generally speaking, folks are saying look, do this right. This is an opportunity to show the nation how we can have technology being used in its most effective ways from everything from healthcare delivery to education to job development and growth. Let's make a technology beacon in New Orleans.

CHIDEYA: A lot people don't really have a roof over their head, and they might be saying what do we need high-tech for? What we need is, you know, bricks and mortar.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yes, and I think that's really, that's obviously a valid concern, and where a lot of the focus and attention needs to be going on, but behind all of those everyday things, the day to day, common living things, those questions, there's a lot of policy being devised. There's a lot of discussion happening in some rooms of economic development agencies. The mayor himself has, you know, launched and talked about a free wireless network.

CHIDEYA: But that said, how can technology be used in the rebuilding of the city, early warning systems on levees, and things like that?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: And there's a lot of that already going on. I mean the Army Corps of Engineers has this awesome display. I've looked at it online and spoke to a few people. It's kind of a virtual display of what took place, how it happened, and they're using these computer models to redevelop and further engineer going forward some of the specific rebuilding efforts as it relates to the levees.

Then there's other efforts that are taking place in terms of rebuilding. In Louisiana, the technology and economic development office there, has what's coming out a growth 2006 report of the future of the South. And this report, they're looking at really of getting everyone from the everyday citizen to policy leaders to participate in this online survey from Southerners to obtain their attitudes towards innovation and technology and the ways that it can be used in the economic rebirth of that region.

So there's been all of this spotty coverage and there's been a lot of action to make technology accessible now, but really a lot of bad has kind of gone to the background. And what we need to start discussing is the technology policy that's starting to shape for the future rebuilding of New Orleans.

CHIDEYA: Who are the players in all of these discussions? Obviously the government must be part of it on some level, but who else is trying to kind of bridge the digital divide in a city like New Orleans?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yes, well, you have New Orleans--the mayor has an Office of Technology Development, and they've had several hearings. You also have Louisiana Technology and Economic Development Office, but you're also hearing about technology councils. You would expect politicians and economic development offices to participate and be very visible, but you're also seeing smaller outfits, member-based organizations like the Baton Rouge Technology Council who has created a new website that allows New Orleans small businesses that were dislocated to help them find temporary space.

CHIDEYA: So Mario, if you were the technology czar of New Orleans, and it was up to you to pick a technology and install it and lead New Orleans into a high tech future, what would you do?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: First and foremost, I wouldn't be able to answer the question of picking a technology. What I would do is I would surround myself by technology leaders in several different companies of several different industries to be able to then have a forum where we could exchange different ideas, different innovations, things to get to an end result. I think it's going to be a combination and collaboration approach. It's going to have to happen in order for it to be successful.

CHIDEYA: Mario Armstrong covers technology for Baltimore area member stations, WYPR and WEAA. He is, of course, our own tech expert. Thanks, Mario.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai.

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