Information technology at WHO
Interview de M. Martin Catterall,
head of IT at WHO.
By Sergio da Silva, UNOG/ICTS.
The World Health Organization is today, more than ever, dealing with complex health situations and these need appropriate means to cope with them. Apart from the dedication and the expertise of health professionals, the collaboration with IT specialists is necessary to help carrying out the daily activities of the Organization and emergency situations.
Martin Catterall is the new head of IT at WHO and has accepted to talk to us about Information Technology in the Organization and related trends.
How is WHO structured?
WHO is a federated system composed of the headquarters in Geneva and the regional offices which manage each geographical region and the countries within the region. There are 6 regions with the local responsibility for delivering output/products to the countries in their region. We have regional offices for Africa (AFRO), Americas (AMRO), Eastern Mediterranean (EMRO), Europe (EURO), South East Asia (SEARO) and Western Pacific (WPRO) and also some research centers in various countries.
What is the Head Office role?
WHO is not about command and control but of collaboration and consultation with each of the different groups, where there is an IT focal point or manager. The key to successful management of IT across WHO is in combining these groups into a cohesive management group or steering committee so that we are not one head office ruling everybody but a consultative IT group responsible for the overall IT function.
What was your experience before joining WHO?
I grew up in New Zealand and spent most of my time working in Asian countries in the private sector: for the Indonesian government, in retail exchange or food manufacturing. I have lived and worked in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and Ive managed projects in most Asian countries. So, I come to Geneva with a strong understanding of what it is like to be a regional controller rather than from a head office perspective.
In your busy schedule do you find the time to meet with your peers in other UN Organizations?
There is a lot to learn from the network of other persons in my position in the other Organizations; it is unfortunate at the moment that I cannot put time into that. Lets first get our basic mission right, and then we can start talking about added value.
In terms of IT basic services what do you see as the most important thing to be done?
People want to come to their office every morning, pick up a telephone and use it, they want to be able to get their e-mail without any problems or spam invasion, they want to have the connectivity when they need it and where they need it, they want to be able to get onto the Intranet and use that freely and they want to be able to use the core systems of the Organization in an effective way. If you can satisfy those base needs and if there is assistance to provide a level of service that exceeds their expectations, then IT becomes invisible.
At the moment do you consider IT still very visible, in other words, are there still a lot of things to do in this respect?
We have just completed a very successful project (Synergy 2), which has upgraded every desktop and every laptop in the head office with Microsoft Windows XT. They all have now a new standard set of tools, the applications have all been tested, and every user has been given training.
Does it mean that you have already trained the 3500 users here at headquarters?
Yes, everyone has been trained within a few months. We have upgraded the desktops, and then we upgraded the peoples skills to use them. But part of my mandate, rather than leading us through quiet evolution is also to bring a bit of a revolution as well.
Now that you have a new desktop here in Headquarters do you intend to share it with the regional or country offices?
I would like to be able to share it with the regions. The question is more as to whether the regions themselves want to adopt this model. It is a matter of priority for them, for example, in order to run XP you may need machines that are more powerful, and in regional or country offices the reality may be that not everyone has the best machine, maybe also they need to put their resources into other projects. Moving away from the basics, if you think in terms of moving into the revolution mode now, we are looking at a number of drivers for the Organization, one driver is the country connectivity, this is a very big motivator in terms of providing the tools and the connectivity into the country itself to make the countrys staff more powerful, more able to access the resources that WHO has. Our product is giving knowledge to the countries health systems.
How is that service granted?
We are currently implementing a Global Private Network (GPN) to be used by every country office and, if necessary, also at the level of Regional offices. We are looking at using a satellite network, so we intend to put a satellite dish in every country to provide them with much cheaper telephone, video conferencing and much better data connectivity. It can be very expensive and hard to obtain local connectivity, unless you have your own network. We use GPN, because it is a private network that we can manage and guarantee the availability in a developing country. It is a big project!
When do you expect to have it fully implemented ?
By the end of next year, for a majority of the countries. Another drive of the change is WHO trying to implement an in-house system. We have many different core systems and we are trying to standardize all of this into one integrated package.
What is the actual situation of this project ?
That is a project underway right now. If we have a global data centre and we have a global network, our capabilities of developing something once and then deploying it around the world are very good. Thats a huge benefit for this Organization. Just the very nature of that, will bring together all the different IT groups.
What are your plans regarding the Global Data Center?
I will be looking at getting it up and running by next year. We are currently looking at the options of outsourcing. If we outsource, what parts do we have to outsource or do we outsource the whole thing? Do we keep in house? Do we use our own staff? Do we locate it in Switzerland? Or do we locate it in any number of countries around the world? These are all question marks for the moment.
What type of difficulties do you expect in the realization of your objectives?
In my experience of the past, in rolling-outs, such a monumental change in a Organization, many of the traditional processes or procedures to be followed by an organization change, can be quiet dramatic. The simple concept of electronic signature is a very big concept if you are in a paper driven organization that requires multiple signatures on a piece of paper.
Do you have plans to use biometric identification ?
At the moment, no! We are looking at a global authentication program that authenticates the entry on the network and provides a set of credentials to the user.
A single sign-on?
Thats right. Then, once you are in the network and according to your profile, youll have access to certain systems. So, the all authorization approval process is electronic. You can no longer leave yourself logged-on your computer and go for lunch. Its a workflow aspect, managers will no longer, insist on pieces of paper with signed documents. Its a learning period.
When will that be implemented?
We are trying to have the infrastructure in place and at the same time to re-organize IT so that we can support it by 2006. What we have now is a number of legacy systems between here and the regions and we have people who work very hard to support those systems. It is very important for us as an Organization to recognize that, and also ensure that we continue to support those legacy systems until they are completely replaced by the new systems.
What will happen to the staff running these systems?
These people are experts in the functionality, of the structure of the Organization. My objective is to be able to give the opportunity to use that knowledge, obtain new training, new systems and allow them to move into supporting the new systems. Organizational knowledge is very valuable and important to us. We are trying to limit the workload on the old systems so that we can free people up, to start to participate in the implementation of the new systems and obtain training on the new system.
Do you have time to follow some of those seminars for IT managers on IT vision?
I dont go to as many as I would like to. Having put organizations through a change before, one can go to seminars and talk about vision or you can actually do it. (the telephone rings and a smart phone is used to answer) At the moment we are looking to have Senior management using them. It offers full e-mail, address book and calendar, synchronized with Outlook from the office, plus the Internet browser. I can also manage my e-mail wherever I am. Its very convenient.
Are you looking at emergency response to health issues, such as: SARS, Asian flu?
We are constantly looking at how we can improve our responsiveness and establish a network of response centers. We are developing a global event management system, which is a way of managing all the communication and workflow processes required during an emergency situation. We are looking at developing a network of command centres or situation rooms both within WHO and external to WHO, maybe at the country level as well. To manage outbreak alerts and to manage the mapping of health events against geographical features/maps. So we can track variations within a spread of health issues across a geographic context. We just developed a situation room here, which is going to be the nerve center for emergency response. So, if you think in terms of developing a global health mapping application management system at the same time we are developing a network of response centers which will be all tied together by these different software products, we are effectively recognizing the change in health and the requirements for emergency response. This is another way that the WHO is changing.
How will these changes be benefic for health specialists?
We need to put more focus in areas within the Organization directly related to health and support the programmes we have. Health specialists need to continue to develop and understand health issues and apply the technology, which can help them to find the right solutions. Many of the health professionals we have, are used to technology and have a strong understanding of its use, but the idea of developing a partnership with IT, for some is quite new. This is part of the revolution. The objective is to free help specialists up to their health potential.
And in terms of disaster recovery and business continuity?
We have built in redundancies and built-in recovery processes in our current systems. The global data center and the sign-on application in the all Organization needs to be well protected, be robust and have redundancy in it but also ability to cope with failure. It is strength in business continuity that needs to be developed at the same time the new structure is developed.