ON New Year’s Eve in New Zealand, an extraordinary UN-backed emergency watch will kick off on the Internet. The objective: to keep tabs on how the world is faring as it enters the next millennium.
Greenwich Mean Time will be 13 hours behind; the east coast of the US will be 17 hours behind. And that lag, the system’s planners say, could help others deal with any Y2K-related failures that pop up in New Zealand, the first industrialised country to enter the new century.
The real-time, Web-based view of the Y2K problem is the work of a World Bank-funded outfit called the International Y2K Co-operation Centre.
Using a standardised reporting format, the centre plans to collect data from 170 or more national Y2K co-ordinators. Its web site, http://www.iy2kcc.org, will flash colour-coded indicators on everything, from energy and communications to financial services, government services as well as air, land and sea transport. Anyone with access to the Internet will be able to monitor, country by country, the status of the technology-challenging date change. One of the goals is to prevent panic and rumour-mongering.
The Y2K problem stems from an old programming trick of using two digits to represent years, like 99 for 1999. Unless fixed, computers may read 00 as 1900 instead of 2000. That could trip critical systems and confuse gadgets with embedded timing devices such as elevators, medical equipment and traffic lights.
The Washington-based centre’s stated mission is to minimise disruption to the world economy and societies. A key approach has been to coax out as much disclosure of Y2K readiness information as possible. “In the absence of information, markets will assume the worst,” said Bruce McConnell, the centre’s director. “We don’t know whether this is going to be a `one’ on the Richter scale or a `seven’. What’s particularly challenging about it is that whatever happens is likely to happen in a lot of places at once.”
The centre operates on a $1m budget and was set up under the auspices of the UN in February. It has been stitching together regional discussions to deal with cross-border issues, swap data and prepare contingency plans. The emphasis is on national “self-reliance” in dealing with any disruptions, said McConnell. “The Y2K emergency, if there is one, will be widespread and simultaneous,” he said in a written testimony last month to a US Senate special panel on the Y2K problem. “Normal bilateral and multilateral assistance programmes may be highly stressed in this environment.” On the anvil: setting up “help desks”, on a regional basis. Australia and Japan, for instance, have identified electricity-generating experts who could talk others through any fixes, should they be necessary, during the rollover. New Zealanders seem to like the idea of being a kind of global early-warning station. They already gave the world one warning when the failure to account for the ’96 leap year caused computers to shut down at the Comalco aluminium smelter. “Two hours later, an identical plant in Hobart, Australia, experienced the exact same failure,” said Clare Pinder, director, New Zealand’s Y2K Readiness Commission. “This time, we’re going to have the eyes of the world focused on us.” New Zealand is working to head off the danger that its telecommunications circuits could be swamped by calls from those seeking word on how the date change went. — Reuters “We’re all working together to make sure that we’re not put at risk by being first,” Ms Pinder said. The International Y2K centre, for instance, would reroute traffic from the New Zealand Web page http://www.y2k.govt.nz to sites that “mirror” it on servers in the US and Europe, she added.