IT Realities and Visions in Greenland

by Dr Klaus Georg Hansen, Head of Groenlandica, National Library of Greenland

Greenland is the largest island in the world but 84% of the land is covered by ice. It is inhabited by only 55,000 people who live in 87 different settlements with no other connections than by water, air and telecommunication. No roads, railways or optical fibres connect the settlements in Greenland.

The traditional Inuit means of communication was by word of mouth; casual meetings with other hunters, and organised summer camps, the aasiviks, where people from large areas met to hunt, to fall in love and to pass information. Naturally news travelled slowly.

The first contacts between the Europeans and the Greenlanders were made in the 17th century. The European whalers did some trading with the Greenlanders and from time to time kidnapped some of them. This contact brought no changes in the Greenlanders means of communication and channels of information. However, the traditional non-written collective memory was efficient.

The killing in 1612 of the leader of a Danish expedition, James Hall, after Greenlanders had recognised him as the man responsible for the kidnapping of 3 Greenlanders 7 years earlier was evidence of this fact.

The Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede came to Greenland in 1721. He introduced a new means of communication - the art of writing in Greenlandic. Since the mid 18th century books have been published in Greenlandic and, in 1861, the first Greenlandic language newspaper started. The newspaper, Atuagagdliutit, was distributed free to all settlements in Greenland. This newspaper is still published and has from its beginning been a central channel of information for the creation of a national Greenlandic unity.

The distribution of information has always been a crucial problem, not only internally, but also to and from Greenland. One good example is the correspondence between the famous Greenland born linguist Samuel Kleinschmidt and a colleague in Labrador in the middle of the 19th century. Correspondence from Greenland to Labrador and back again took 3 or 4 years. Under these conditions Kleinschmidt developed his world-famous linguistic theories and grammar for the Greenlandic language - imagine what he might have been able to accomplish if he had had access to e-mail!

The next 50 years on from Kleinschmidt’s time saw the development of "kayak mail", a special Greenlandic mailing system. It was used by the Danish colonial authorities to overcome some of the difficulties of getting information distributed between the colonies in Greenland. The kayakers chosen to deliver the mail were the so-called great hunters - the most skilful in the colony.

In 1925 a new era of communication was introduced to Greenland: the electronic wireless telegraph. The telegraph eliminated some of the former problems the colonial administrators had had with the distribution of information both internally in Greenland and - especially - between Greenland and the colonial administrators in Denmark. Nevertheless, it did not change in any radical way the control over the means of communication - that was still in the hands of the colonial authorities.

In the last 30 years major structural and technical changes have been introduced. Before Home Rule in 1979, Greenland was managed from Denmark according to one coherent concept. After 1979 the management of Greenland became divided into several different and less co-ordinated concepts. One example of this structural change is the division of the GTC (Greenland Technical Organisation) into a series of independent organisations that would take care of telecommunication, supply of water and electricity, and construction. The concepts for the new institutions still contain some reminiscences from the colonial past.

For example, there is still a Danish monopoly on telecommunication out of Greenland. Negotiations on how this monopoly can be handed over to Greenland will hopefully be finished in 1997. Additionally TELE Greenland controls a monopoly for telecommunication inside Greenland.

In 1995 Greenland was the second ‘nation’ in the world to have all analogue telephone exchanges digitised (the first was Iceland only 2 months before) thanks to Tele Greenland. However, there is still about 5% of Greenlanders who live in small settlements with no telephone connections at all. In 1996 Tele Greenland introduced ISDN connections and in 1998 90% of all Greenlanders are expected to have access to ISDN.

Internet was introduced to Greenland in January 1996 and it is already a great success. Electronic systems like Internet give, for the first time, all people in Greenland - without regard to where they live - equal access to cheap interactive multimedia-like exchange of information without the possibility for those in power - by legal means - to control its distribution. Today you can get a modem connection to Internet through TELE Greenland’s special services. The price is the same from all over Greenland: 0.90 Danish kroner per minute.

In November 1995 the Greenlandic government set up a working group on information technology (IT). The group’s purpose was to produce a report with recommendations on a national IT strategy. Politically the aim was to get a good grip on the trends and potential possibilities of using IT that would idealogically lead to a strengthening of real democracy in Greenland. The working group’s deadline was December 1996, and a political discussion of a national IT strategy is fixed for the spring session of parliament in 1997.

The recommendations of the information technology strategy group are:

  1. Free access to electronic information for all - the idea is to establish free public Internet connections at local public libraries or - in small settlements - at the local public school. The use of the Greenlandic language is already an integrated part of the information put out on the Internet from Greenlandic Web-servers.
  2. Use of telemedicine - expected to give better diagnosis at smaller hospitals with no local specialists. The idea is to give all the 15 local hospitals access to full-scale interactive video conferencing facilities (a 384 kbps ISDN connection) through which specialists at the central hospital in Nuuk can be consulted.
  3. Use of IT in education - generally met with very little enthusiasm from the teachers at the primary schools. Nevertheless the primary schools in Ammassalik municipality are preparing a pilot project with interactive video participation between the schools at the small settlements and the central school in the municipality. The first dozen foreign educational cd-roms have been translated into Greenlandic for use in the public schools.

The overall goals are better democracy, better diagnosis and better education through a better distribution of access to the existing knowledge and information. However, the realisation of all the foregoing ideas will depend on the willingness of politicians to invest public money in IT, and whether or not they will do so, we will know more about when the snow melts and the midnight sun returns.