by Stephanie Overby

Building IT for worst-case scenarios

Mar 30, 20153 mins
Cloud ComputingData CenterEnterprise Applications

The World Bank overhauls IT so it's better prepared to do business in global hotspots where war, disease and poverty may be among the challenges of everyday life

The World Bank had been through six IT leaders in as many years when Stephanie von Friedeburg took the role in 2012. A 20-year development and investment veteran of the World Bank Group and an expert in Russian studies, von Friedeburg had previously taken on the unexpected role of CIO at the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group focused on private-sector development. After she spent several years turning around that IT organization, the World Bank’s then president, Robert Zoellick, tapped her to tackle the organization’s larger IT group.

Six weeks later, Jim Yong Kim became president of the World Bank. He saw technology as critical to his vision of reducing the global poverty rate from 14.5 percent to 3 percent by 2030. The World Bank’s five member organizations offer loans and other financing to developing countries. Better IT systems in 186 country offices in some of the most tumultuous areas on the planet would mean the bank’s 16,000 employees could deliver better development programs to address the world’s most complex problems. Kim “gave us carte blanche to go for it,” says von Friedeburg.

But building systems that work at the bank’s Washington headquarters and at its in-country offices is a huge challenge. In countries like Afghanistan and Mongolia, applications from ERP to email were slower, less accessible and more expensive than at home, says Colin Shepherd, head of operations for IFC’s finance and markets practice group in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. “Basic infrastructure constraints meant that our ability to provide timely information to our clients and stakeholders was significantly reduced,” he says.

As von Friedeburg puts it, “IT had lost its focus.” She says she immediately made investments to give IT some “street cred,” beginning with doubling network capacity. She also set up a risk and compliance organization, an enterprise architecture group and an IT communications team that includes a former L’Oreal product marketer to sell IT’s efforts internally.

One project was a GIS system to assess war damage to Syria’s hospitals, infrastructure and agricultural operations. Analyzing geographic information with other UN data improved the process of relocating refugees, making it easier to find areas where they’d get the most support to restart their lives.

A new telephony system with Cisco videoconferencing gear in all offices cuts down on travel requirements and improves productivity. The presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone use the World Bank’s system to connect with the UN to discuss the Ebola crisis.

New cloud applications help employees when they pull out of dangerous areas, such as Kabul. In the past, they would have had to pack up and carry servers with them to maintain email access when they closed an office and fled. With cloud-based email and file-sharing services, staffers can maintain full access to their data when they relocate.

“For the first time in years, our field office staff feels equal to their D.C. counterparts in terms of IT,” says Shepherd.

IT next plans to spin up Hadoop environments to analyze data about options for alleviating poverty in specific areas. “We’re interested in how we can use newer technology to get the best information to our front line staff so they can make better decisions about development,” von Friedeburg says.