On April 22, in a meeting room located in Baghdad’s Green Zone, Scott Heiferman, chief executive of Meetup.com, and Jason Liebman, chief executive of how-to video site Howcast, sat down with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih for some coffee. It was one of their last meetings as part of a delegation of Silicon Valley and New York–based technology executives—including Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Blue State Digital’s David Nassar, WordPress’s Raanan Bar-Cohen and representatives from YouTube, Google and AT&T—who were sent to the country by the U.S. State Department to survey the state of technology in Iraq and to help formulate ideas on how to build its infrastructure from scratch.
During the four-day trip, the executives met with, among other officials, General Nasier Abadi, Iraqi Armed Forces’ vice chief of staff; Marc Wall, coordinator for economic transition in Iraq; and Ralph Steen, officer in charge of the national fiber network installation project. Outside of the Green Zone, they wore military helmets and flak jackets and met local Iraqi leaders. They sat at roundtables with elite students from the University of Technology and the University of Baghdad to discuss how they use Facebook and which videos they like on YouTube. After coffee and tea with the deputy prime minister, Twitter’s Mr. Dorsey convinced him to start his own account on the microblogging platform. He could use his iPhone to update the page.
“The goal was really to listen and see if there was a way we could help, go there and come up with a list of things that we could do in a matter of weeks, not years,” Mr. Liebman, the Howcast executive, told The Observer in a phone interview after his return to New York.
The delegation confronted a myriad of connectivity problems in Iraq. Power grids are on the fritz. Only about 5 percent of homes have Internet access, according to the group, and although an estimated 80 percent of the population own mobile phones, infrastructure is crippling under the demand.
“We were on the phone with the deputy prime minister before we met him and the phone [call] dropped five, six times,” Mr. Liebman said.
The group was escorted by a security team, and “always felt safe,” according to Mr. Liebman, but with suicide bombings a not-infrequent occurrence, everyday safety is a constant concern for Iraqi citizens; reliable phone and Internet connections are vital to their daily lives.
“They’ve got real issues,” Mr. Heiferman said about Iraq. “Some say, ‘How do you think about Internet infrastructure when you need a sanitation infrastructure? How can you think about Internet connectivity when there isn’t clean water?’ And that’s very valid. But it’s not a matter of either/or. There’s parts of the rebuilding effort that can look at different things.”
The delegation—the first of its kind—was organized by Jared Cohen, the 27-year-old Stanford graduate who became the youngest member of the State Department’s policy planning staff in 2006. “We all know the story of challenges in Iraq,” Mr. Cohen explained during a digital video conference with State Department reporters last Wednesday. “We’ve been hearing that story for a while. But increasingly, we’ve been hearing stories and reporting from our embassy and elsewhere about opportunities, in particular with regard to technology. So we had been exploring ways that we can embrace those trends and leverage those trends to try to look for new opportunities to use technology to support our objectives in Iraq.”
During the trip, the group used a Twitter hashtag (#iraqtech) and worked on a sharable document (using Google Docs, of course), according to Mr. Liebman, to chronicle the ways in which they may be able to help—from training government officials on using online tools to foster transparency to teaching students how to use Twitter.
On April 21, the group got a tour of the Iraq National Museum, which recently reopened and has become an important symbol for both government and citizens for their history and culture. They met with Faeza Al Ubadi, the museum’s chief engineer, who is trying to build a Web site for the institution. “He was talking about things like Norton AntiVirus and all these things just to get email up, and we were like, ‘O.K., you can use Google Apps. It’s free, it takes two seconds, you don’t need to build your whole email server, right?” Mr. Liebman said. They plan on helping Mr. Al Ubadi build a robust Web site for the museum. One of their goals is to educate Iraqis on the free platforms, from Google to YouTube, that are already available to them.
The group also hopes to organize a delegation of Iraqi government officials and community leaders for a visit to Silicon Valley, and possibly New York’s tech community. They are also brainstorming ideas for an online, centralized information portal for Iraqi citizens, according to Mr. Liebman. “We’ll have more announcements in a few months,” he said.
“Someone on my team, at Meetup, they were kind of skeptical of the trip,” Mr. Heiferman told the Observer. “And they said, ‘Wow, so this is just America doing some sort of cultural imperialism on this country.’
“But the point of the trip wasn’t to bring some American Internet brand into the country; it’s about the raw piping for how people connect with each other in ways that just literally don’t compute if you’ve been in the Saddam dark ages for a bunch of decades,” Mr. Heiferman continued. “This isn’t bringing McDonald’s to Iraq. It’s bringing some of the rawest ideas of how technology helps them be more themselves.”
THE GROUP can’t necessarily build Internet infrastructure in Iraq with their own hands, but they can spark another important initiative—using the Internet to empower the Iraqi people.
“This is one of the most exciting areas of conflict-resolution work going on today,” said Sheldon Himelfarb, who specializes in technology and media tactics for post-conflict peace-building and development for the D.C.-based United States Institute of Peace. “What this medium is allowing them to do is get a sense of confidence, connection with the rest of the world, and not only connection with the rest of the world but communities in their own countries.”
Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University who chronicles new-media and technology advances in the Middle East on his blog, Abu Aardvark, describes a “total free-for-all, new-media space” for young people to build upon. “It [is] more about them themselves and forming ideas, forming relationships, trying to figure out ways of engaging with a society that seemed to have no place for them,” Mr. Lynch said during a discussion last week at the Open Society Institute titled “The Political Impact of New Media in the Middle East.” “The new ideas, the fact that they become different kinds of citizens, empowered in different ways and with different expectations of each other, of their government, of other societies”—this is what could make a major change in the Middle East.
As far as the Iraqi government’s commitment to building a stronger tech infrastructure and understanding the power of the Web, Mr. Heiferman said it “was a mixed bag” among officials. “Sometimes you’d think the commitment was there, and sometimes you’d think not, depending on who you’re talking to.”
There also seemed to be a cultural disconnect—most Iraqis aren’t hyped up on Twitter, for example. “There was comedy in seeing Jack Dorsey talk to a bunch of bearded 60-year-old Saddam-era Iraqis about how important it is to hear about your sister eating a sandwich,” he said.
“But we sort of take for granted how valuable Craigslist is for our lives and Google is for our lives and YouTube is for our lives,” Mr. Heiferman said.
“Our whole purpose here is to listen and try to understand the way they kind of are looking at the possibility of investing in Internet infrastructure and having a discussion of the need that people have. We tried to explain the basic notion of having a private sector, the basic notion of being a democracy, and that the Internet will be increasingly vital if they’re going to participate in the larger world.”