The IAEA and Information Technology: Tools for Efficiency

by Barbara Paul, Division of Scientific and Technical Information

Information technology (IT) -- the use of computers and networks to electronically collect, manipulate, and disseminate data in organized ways -- is a common thread of IAEA programmes. About 10% of the IAEA's budget is earmarked for IT activities. Some activities deliver databases directly to Member States, while many others are directed towards increasing organizational efficiency. The Agency's IT capabilities have progressed significantly over the years.

1970s and 1980s: Process Automation. Most early uses of IT were to automate manual support processes, such as payroll, bookkeeping, and project tracking. These activities were characterized by well-defined procedures and reporting needs. The IAEA's Central Computer Services (CCS) operated two mainframe computers through a central group of computer professionals. One computer was used exclusively by the Department of Safeguards to ensure the confidentiality of inspection and verification data. By the mid-1980s, there were more than 100 computer systems on the two mainframe computers.

1980s: Text Processing and Personal Computers. By the 1980s, Agency staff needed more flexibility in the way data, text, and graphics were processed and used, and in responding promptly to inquiries. The Agency approved the use of personal computers (PCs) in 1984 to provide this flexibility and speed. Today about 2000 PCs are in use throughout the Agency. Purchases and applications are governed by standards and procedures to ensure cost effectiveness and compatibility with the Agency's computer network.

B>1990s: Move to Decentralize.By 1989, it had become obvious that mainframe computers, with central development and support, could not provide sufficient flexibility and local decision-making power. The needs of programme managers were changing too rapidly for traditional computer systems. The IAEA decided in 1989 to decentralize IT operations, giving responsibility for computing to each department, whose divisions now have IT Coordinators and, frequently, their own programming staff. The CCS was given the responsibility of overall support, providing a technical infrastructure for common networking, training, problem resolution, and guidance for technical development.

In 1991, the IAEA Board authorized US $5.5 million in a special allocation to help move IT activities towards the decentralized goal. An Agency-wide plan for networking was developed and implemented between 1991 and 1994. The central computer network today provides a highway along which each department can develop its services tailored to programmatic needs.

1990s: Support and Services. Working with IT Coordinators, the CCS today provides support for a broad portfolio of desktop productivity products. The support includes providing about 1000 hours of software training monthly to Agency staff; answering technical questions through a central help line; and evaluating technologies, new applications, and systems. Electronic mail and Internet services further are provided to the entire Agency. More than 250,000 messages are exchanged monthly via the in-house electronic mail service and about 30,000 messages are received from outside the IAEA via the Agency's connection to the Internet.

1995 and Beyond: Information Management. As computer systems move to local networks, the need for maintaining a coherent Agency-wide understanding and treatment of the data increases. Data must be shared where appropriate to avoid needless duplication and promote efficient operations. The Agency consequently is looking more closely at the need for managing information through technology, rather than just managing the technology.

Greater transfer of information will require an improved technical infrastructure. The network and database computers consequently will be upgraded in 1996. Applications also must be revised frequently to meet new programmatic requirements, requiring evaluation and selection of appropriate tools and expertise. Moreover, staff must be properly trained to apply new technologies for greater productivity at the workplace.

The IAEA has been recognized as one of the leading organizations in the UN family in terms of its use of technology to implement its programmes. Its strategy for the turn of the century bridges the established in-house IT partnerships with the development of well-established policies for information management. The efforts are fundamental elements for strengthening the IAEA's capabilities to efficiently apply information technologies for programme effectiveness and organizational productivity.