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What I Did on My Iraqi Vacation

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, April 27 2009

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If my own recent conversations and Internet back-channel chatter are any indication, then there's a great deal curiosity in tech and politics circles about what the purpose was of that recent "new media" delegation to Iraq. Last week's trip saw folks from companies like Twitter, Google, and YouTube sit down with such Iraqi luminaries as President Jalal Talabani to discuss the future of the new Iraq. (Some background here, if you haven't been following the trip.) What was the thinking behind a State Department trip that brought together the mucketiest of mucks in Iraq with reps from a handful of web 2.0 companies? The State Department lead on the trip is still making his way back from Iraq. But participants on the trip already have boots back down in the U.S., and a few more details about the historic trip are emerging.

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From the time they flew a C130 in from Jordan, the new media delegation had a packed schedule -- getting briefed on the security situation by the American military, lunching with officials at the American embassy, meeting with Talabani and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih to discuss the future of Iraq, sitting down with military officials to discuss strategic communications and fiber rollout, and spending time with university students to discuss how they might better engage with their fledgling government. The traveled inside and outside the Green Zone -- accompanied by helicopter escorts when they drove through Baghdad's more dangerous neighborhoods.

Jason Liebman, CEO of Howcast and a participant on the trip, tells me that a popular topic of conversation was how Iraqis inside and outside government can start to make use of the web 2.0 tools that many of us may take for granted. Liebman used the example of meeting with officials from the National Museum of Iraq that was heavily looted during the start of the Iraq war and has only recently reopened. (The museum, says Liebman, was a reminder of the long and often proud technological history of Iraq; "They're innovators," says Liebman.) The officials were curious about how to go about setting up a secure email server for internal operations. Liebman reports that the delegation's response was a gentle, Have you considered Gmail and Google Apps?

Coming out of the trip, Liebman tells me, the delegation is looking for ways to help in Iraq. Talks are happening about helping the museum develop a web presence. Students they met with were so intrigued by the potential of tools like Twitter, Google, and Wordpress in Arabic, Kurdish, and English for both developing a stronger civil society and to scaring up some work that the delegation, says Liebman, is discussing throwing together a simple hub with a handy URL that points to the free and cheap hosted web services that might quickly help them along their way. "They're smart, they're educated, they understood what YouTube was, and what Google was," said Liebman of the students and other Iraqis they met along the way. "They just need a little help. They want to embrace technology. But they've been shut off from the outside world for 35 years." Until now.

(I asked Liebman about the fact, noted here and elsewhere, that this was an all-male delegation. While offering his taken on how that came to be, he rightly noted that that's ultimately a State Department question. But, he added, there were several women at the other side of the table during their discussions. He also told me that the question of why a U.S. tech delegation contained no women never came up during their time in Iraq.)

(Photos provided by Jason Liebman)