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Feature on Y2K

A. Introduction

The Year 2000 [Y2K] Issue - Why Health Promoters Should Think About it

As someone who has been working with computers a fair bit in the past few years, I had heard of the Year 2000 problem - when the two digit date system in software and microchips will hit "00" and possibly misinterpret the year 2000 as the year 1900. Like many people, I considered it a technical problem that would not affect me. But gradually, as I find our more through news reports, friends, colleagues, and experts, I have realized that the problem is bigger than MY individual experience. It is a global issue and much larger than a personal computer problem. It was thinking about the inter-relationship of all of our systems and the networks we use everyday that use micro-processors that reminded me it could be a bigger hazard to life as we know it. I began considering how a non-profit community health organization might be affected by the Y2K issue. Sometimes the implications seem much too big to comprehend, let along respond to, especially given the conflicting reviews of the situation. Recently, there has been attention to the issue that offers concrete, practical and innovative ways of both thinking about Y2K and preparing for it. This feature is intended to highlight some of the issues and point you to some of the resources.

- Alison Stirling

Like Alison, the implications of the millennium bug keep surfacing in my formal and informal connections with people; I am worried about basics like heating, water and electricity! And I have my reasons. People in the power supply business are doing an inventory of the underground and internal microchips which will need to be replaced. Then they need to replace them. Then they need to run tests. This all has to happen in the next 18 months. Wall Street is already in the testing phases, but it won't matter if the TSE or even banks are ready if the power companies are not.

While I am worried, I am also excited about the potential for building community and local partnerships in preparation for the potential problems. Even if the worst case scenarios don't come to pass, these alignments would no doubt benefit public health.

- Lorraine Telford

B. The Cassandra Project (

Our Objectives:

* To raise public awareness and alert Public Sector organizations of potential Y2K related: health and safety risks; interruption of basic and essential services

* Promote community preparation activities

* Monitor federal, state, and local Y2K activities as it relates to the public welfare

* Promote contingency planning for all health, safety, and basic and essential services related systems

* Encourage the voting public to ask elected officials to develop health and safety contingency plans

* Establish a clearinghouse for related information and contacts

[Ed: The following is excerpted from a lengthy, well researched brief on the breadth of the possible problems. It is one of 4 articles prepared by the project, and complemented by a diverse and comprehensive collection of resources and links to sources of information (primarily US) on Y2K and the public sector infrastructure.]

Why Year 2000 Problem Poses A Risk to the Public Health and Safety, and

Continuity of Critical Infrastructure and Services

- Compiled by The Cassandra Project

Beyond financial losses, the year 2000 issue represents a significant threat to public health and safety, and critical infrastructure. Computer programs that utilize dates also control nuclear power plant operations, water and sewer plants, chemical factories, petroleum pipelines, and weapon systems; failure of which may lead to serious injuries or the loss of human life as well as environmental damage (Scheier et al. 1996/1997). Any computer system that makes use of dates is potentially at risk, and that is most of them.

Beyond the publicized software problems, the aspect most overlooked is the literally billions of embedded computer chips powering everything from copy machines to medical devices to nuclear power plants. It is these embedded chips and systems that pose the greatest threat to our critical infrastructure and the public health and safety.

Implications for Public Health

According to "The Year 2000 Issue Implications for Public Health Information and Surveillance Systems", by Centers for Disease Control - "It is vital that the public health community begin aggressively addressing this issue to avoid serious negative programmatic effects across public health."

All organizations are affected by this issue from a business and administrative perspective. However, public health information and surveillance systems at all levels of local, state, federal, and international public health are especially sensitive to and dependent upon dates for epidemiological and health statistics reasons. Date of events, duration between events, and other calculations such as age of people are core epidemiological and health statistic requirements.

Moreover, public health authorities are usually dependent upon primary data providers such as physician practices, laboratories, hospitals, managed care organizations, etc., as the source of original data. CDC, for example, maintains over 100 public health surveillance systems all of which are dependent upon external sources of data. This means that it's not sufficient to make only internal systems Y2K compliant in order to address all of the ramifications of this issue.

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D. The Year 2000: Social Chaos or Social Transformation?

John L. Petersen, Margaret Wheatley, Myron Kellner-Rogers,

This article by 3 major organizational change thinkers challenges us to see the opportunity that goes with this "emerging global millennial event", of collaborative planning. They note:

"We believe there are two paths possible. We can deny the problem until it is upon us and then deal with the consequences of social upheaval. Or we can call people together now - in communities, organizations, governments - to engage in both preparedness planning and the creation of new, simplified systems. This IS an opportunity for social transformation, but only if we intervene immediately and pursue unparalleled levels of collaborative planning."

"Until quite recently, it's been difficult to interest most people in the Year 2000 problem. ... we've noted two general categories of response. In the first category, people acknowledge the problem but view it as restricted to a small number of businesses, or a limited number of consequences.... The second category of reactions reveals the great collective faith in technology and science.

People describe Y2K as a technical problem, and then enthusiastically state that human ingenuity and genius always finds a way to solve these type of problems."

What we know about Y2K

* a technological problem that cannot be solved by technology

* the first-ever, non-negotiable deadline

* a systemic crisis that no one can solve alone

* a crisis that transcends boundaries and hierarchies

* an opportunity to evoke greater capacity from individuals and organizations

* an opportunity to simplify and redesign major systems"


We urge you to get involved in Y2K, wherever you are, and in whatever organizations you participate. We can't leave this issue to others to solve for us, nor can we wait for anyone else to assert leadership. You can begin to ask questions; you can begin to convene groups of interested friends and colleagues; you can engage local and business leaders; you can educate yourself and others (start with for up-to-date information and resources.)

This is OUR problem."

Please see OHPE 68.2 for additional resources on Y2K.

Tel: 416-978-0522

Fax: 416-971-2443