Last week saw a real hodgepodge of IT-related errors. While none of them could be called of major significance, they did serve to exemplify the daily annoyance and exasperation for those experiencing them, as well as the unexpected good fortune that sometimes results. We start off with a story whose plotline is no doubt experienced with some regularity. This time it is set in Lenawee, Michigan (population 100 000), where a new computer system intended to make life easier and more productive for county employees has instead made it more difficult and highly stressful.
New Computer System “Overwhelms” Lenawee County Employees
Back in December 2011, Michigan’s Lenawee County Commissionapproved a US $1.45 million technology upgrade for outdated county computer systems and equipment, the Daily Telegram reported at the time. Poor economic conditions caused county tax revenue shortfalls, which in turn forced the county government to reduce its staff, yet the public was still expecting that “the same level of services” be provided. The Commissioners' expectation was that the new computer software and hardware would make county employees not only more productive but help avoid future staff lay-offs. The goal was to have all the system upgrades, which would affect every government Lenawee County agency and department, in place by the end of 2012.
The Daily Telegram reported last July that the upgrade had reached the half-way mark. While the county's IT staff were reported to be “under stress” from having to install the new system as well as maintain the legacy system (some county agencies had complained about the IT staff not responding quickly enough to on-going problems involving the legacy system), the county administrator informed the County Commissioners that, “We’re actually on the downhill side for IT.” County staff members were beginning their training on the upgraded system, the installation of which looked to be generally within budget and on schedule.
Last week, however, the Daily Telegram published a story indicating that all was not well with the tech upgrade. The Telegram quotes the county treasurer at a County Commissioner hearing as saying, “Things with the new system, they’re going slow and there are things we haven’t conquered yet.” The county clerk stated, “It’s not just a learning process. It’s the system itself. There’s things we thought it would do but it doesn’t do.” One example is the new financial and payroll system, which has created “more work and stress” for county employees instead of making them more productive and efficient, the Telegram reported.
The Lenawee county sheriff is none too happy either. With apparent anger, the sheriff told the Commissioners that, “There is no way we should be in the position we are in right now… We’ve got a system that’s supposed to save us time, but they’re overwhelmed over there.” He also complained that the technology contractor was unresponsive to the technical problems being raised, and that the “level of training” the contractor provided was less than expected.
In addition, the sheriff, as well as other county agency officials, said that the county’s IT staff, which was resource thin, was over in over its head and unable to cope with all the problems cropping up. The Lenawee IT department head basically agreed, saying that “…we probably faltered along the way,” and added that “The stress level everywhere is up through the roof right now.”
Unfortunately, exactly what happened between last July’s “downhill side for IT” and today’s IT tar pit is not explained in any other Telegram or newspaper stories that I can find. It makes one wonder whether upgrade progress was being reported as “green” up until the day it was reported as really instead being “red.” The latest Telegram story indicates that the Commissioners are now thinking of allowing the county IT department to hire another person “to help with a logjam of computer problems.” Whether that will help much, at least in the short-term, is debatable.
Computer Problems “Biggest Niggle” for UK Residents
Apparently, computer-related annoyances top the list of things that annoy us, at least as reported by two recent surveys. According to several related-stories appearing in the UK press, a survey of 1000 people commissioned by UK coffee bean seller Kenco Millicano indicates that computer problems were listed as the top “niggle” nationally for British citizens, followed by spam, getting stuck in traffic or having public transportation that is late. The coffee company sent out the results (which were basically the same, but with slight variations in the ranking order for people living in the North West, South East, North East and the Midlands of England). Not surprisingly for anyone who has ever been to the Midlands of England, traffic congestion far outweighed computer problems as those residents’ major niggle.
Why did a coffee bean company commission the survey, you might ask? Well, it has to do with Kenco Millicano’s new ad campaign about how drinking its instant coffee will allow you to shrug off life’s little problems. Ah, for it to only be so!
In a similar vein, office products company Brother International last month reported the results of a survey it conducted with 500 small business owners (those with less than 100 employees) in the U.S. “75 percent of small business owners indicate that a crashed computer is more disruptive than a sick employee;" “Seventy-seven percent noted that a tech malfunction has negatively impacted their business through a missed deadline or business opportunity.”
Furthermore, Brother’s said in its press release: “66 percent of small business owners say they are frequently overwhelmed by the amount of technology available to help them run their business, and 86 percent additionally noted that in the past year, office productivity suffered due to technology not working properly. In fact, 31 percent of respondents went so far as to say that they would give up a week’s worth of vacation to ensure tech malfunctions never happen in their business again.”
Hmmm, sounds like an opportunity for Kenco Millicano to sell lots of its coffee to small business owners in the U.S.
HK $30 million Blunder Enriches Bettors at Hong Kong’s Sha Tin Racecourse
Hong Kong’s newspaper The Standard reported today that apparently a “punter or a betting syndicate” placed wagers of some HK $30 million on yesterday’s 9th race tierce pool (i.e., 1st , 2nd and 3rd in correct order in a race) at Hong Kong’s Sha Tin Racecourse , which pushed the pool’s value from HK $7 million to HK $37 million (or about $4.8 million). According to this story, the HK $30 million was all repeatedly bet on the winning combination of 10-9-8 using different betting accounts.
What made this strange was that none of the horses bet were among the “fancied” winners, having “win odds of 11, 11 and 28 respectively” the Standard said. In addition, even if the three horses had come in the order bet, the max payout would have been merely HK $11 for every HK $10 bet.
The speculation was that either a human error, or more likely a computer error, was responsible for the strange betting pattern. According to the Standard, the “actual winning numbers were, in order, 6, 2 and 1” which resulted in “1276.8 winning units.” Without the HK $30 million bet, the paper said that each winner would have received about HK $3,000 (US $386); instead they took home HK $21 786 (US $2806) in winnings.
Not surprisingly, no one has come forward and admitted to the mistake.
Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation Overcharges Customers
The Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation, whose purpose it says is “to bring a world of responsible beverage enjoyment to Nova Scotia” (i.e., it controls liquor sales across the province), was apologizing to customers last week about starting its annual spring adjustment in liquor prices a week ago Saturday (30 March) instead of the planned date of Monday, 1 April. According to this story at the Chronicle Herald, the adjustment meant “22 per cent of [NSLC] products would have [seen] an increase of about three per cent. The rest would see a decrease or stay the same.” As a result of the early price adjustments, which the NSLC blamed on a “computer problem,” NSLC customers were over-charged a total of $29 891.70 for their purchases made over the weekend before last.
The NSLC said that instead of automatically refunding the money to customers, it was going to donate the funds to charity instead. The agency also said customers could vote for which charities the money should go to. The reason, according to the NSLC, is that most of the overcharges amounted to less than ten cents, and the effort to return it wasn’t worth it. However, the NSLC did state that anyone who wished a refund could still take their receipt to their local NSLC store and receive one. That action would not impact the amount of money to be given to charity, however.
Also apparently not worth it is an investigation into how the problem occurred, which some provincial politicians were calling for. Nova Scotia’s Finance Minister Maureen MacDonald, in batting away the calls for an inquiry, told the ChronicleHerald that, “There are probably lots of things we could investigate in this province that would give us a greater return for the public taxpayer than something like this.”
The Herald noted slyly that MacDonald didn’t offer any specific examples of the “lots of things” she implied she should be investigating instead.
New Hampshire Medicaid IT System Gets Through First-Week Checkpoint
Last week I told of the roll-out of New Hampshire’s new US $90 million Medicaid Management Information System (MMIS) and how Medicaid providers needed to expect problems with it. In a bit of good news, the problems seem to be minor so far. According to the Union Leader, the system has performed better than forecast, which has “thrilled” Health and Human Services Commissioner Nick Toumpas, who was the one warning of the potential problems.
Maybe Toumpas won’t need that cup of Kenco Millicano’s instant coffee after all.
Other IT Hiccups of Possible Interest
(Note, the blog title originally and erroneously said "Wisconsin County" instead, as the text correctly stated, "Michigan County")
Image: McMillan Digital Art/Getty
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.