There was a potpourri of IT-related hiccups from this past week to report on. We start with a report in the Baltimore Sun about how the Baltimore police department finally admitted that a driver should not have been issued a speeding ticket last April. Why not? All available evidence indicates that the vehicle was not even moving.
According to the story, the driver of a Mazda was given a ticket for traveling 38 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone—even though video from the speed camera that automatically issued the citation and time-stamped photos from two separate still cameras showed that the vehicle was stopped at a red light at the time the supposed infraction occurred. Worse, says the Sun, the photos and footage were supposedly reviewed by the vendors (Xerox State and Local Solutions) who operate the speed camera under city contracts and by a Baltimore law enforcement officer before the citation was issued.
A Baltimore police spokesperson could not provide an answer to the Sun's question regarding why the obvious error was overlooked. The Sun also reported that after running 189 tests on the camera that issued the faulty speed reading (and apparently several others), Xerox couldn’t figure out what caused the camera to periodically malfunction. The city has 83 speed cameras and 81 red-light cameras; they've generated $48 million dollars in fines over the past three years, the Sun reported. Baltimore is now conducting a review of both the cameras’ reliability and the city's ticketing review process, both of which are obviously deficient. Although the city says that “any error is unacceptable,” so far I can find no mention of an apology having been issued by the city to the erroneously ticketed driver.
Next, we have an IT-related error that helped rather than harmed those affected. A story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that online shoppers visiting HomeDepot.com last week got an early holiday present: many their purchases ended up being free. According to the story, Home Depot ran a promotion offering $101 off a specific appliance. However, the promotion was accidentally applied to every online purchase made during a short time before the error was caught. All transactions under $101 cost would-be purchasers nothing and many more purchases were heavily discounted. Home Depot said it was honoring all customer purchases made before the glitch was fixed.
Many couples in Thailand last week wish that they had that type of luck. According to a story at the Phuket Wan Tourism News, a “nationwide data issue” at the Thai Interior Ministry meant that many couples who wanted to be wed at exactly 12:12 on 12 December 2012 were unable to be accommodated, leaving them in tears and looking for another lucky day to be wed.
While maybe not causing tears, computer issues are creating a lot of very unhappy businesses and employees in New Mexico and in Massachusetts. In New Mexico, no vendor checks have been issued since 4 December. Vendors doing business with the state were told that they would have to wait at least another week before getting paid because the state’s SHARE payroll and accounting system continues to be beset by errors that require correcting. According to the report from the Santa Fe New Mexican, “The problem was identified after the SHARE system went down late last week for routine maintenance. Since then, technicians have been working to remove corrupt files that have the potential to create additional problems if left uncorrected.”
In June, the New Mexico admitted that the SHARE payroll system went “haywire,” causing havoc with the paychecks of thousands of the state's 22 000 employees. So far, the state has paid more than $200 000 to fix that problem.
In Massachusetts, media outlets are reporting Attorney General Martha Coakley has told the National Grid—transmitter and distributor of electricity and natural gas to customers in New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island—that it had better begin paying its employees correctly (including all of the overtime hours they put in in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy) – or else face a fine. Apparently, National Grid rolled out a new payroll system as part of a $365 million upgrade to its human resources, finance and supplier management operations just a few weeks before Sandy hit, the Times Union reported last month. Even in the best of times, there are likely to be some payroll errors when a new accounting system goes live. But the hurricane forced many National Grid employees to work hours they normally don't and at locations they normally wouldn't. The resulting payroll adjustments “overloaded” the payroll personnel, who were still dealing with issues related to conversion to the new accounting system.
As a result, some 2000 of the National Grid’s 17 000 U.S. employees have either been paid incorrectly, or not at all, for the last six weeks or so—hence Coakley’s "or else" warning to the utility to fix the problem by this Friday. Whether this is possible remains to be seen; the utility’s president recently promised that the problems wouldn't be cleared up before the end of the month.
And in what is becoming a weekly event, another stock exchange trading error has been reported. Nasdaq had to cancel trades in nine major U.S. stocks last week. According to Bloomberg News, “The errors took place in the minute before the regular opening of trading, the Nasdaq OMX Group Inc. unit said on its website. Goldman Sachs fell as much as 20 percent to $94.01 and Hewlett-Packard plunged 79 percent to $3.06 before the trades were broken. Sprint touched $2.82, a 50 percent decline, prior to the Nasdaq’s decision to reverse those transactions.”
The Bloomberg article indicated that although traders were unhappy by the error, they seem to be resigned to the fact that future computer-related exchange errors are more likely to occur than less. This pessimism is probably realistic, since the Toronto Stock Exchange coincidentally reportedly suffered a “data freeze” problem last week that prevented traders from seeing some stock prices in real-time for a time. Trading wasn’t affected, however.
Finally, we have two stories on efforts to reduce human error when dealing with IT devices. The first is from the New York Times which writes that Google is trying to avoid “fat finger” click mistakes on smart phones. Often, when scrolling on a smart phone screen, a person will hit an advertiser’s ad by mistake. This irritates the person, and the error rate is such it causes mobile ads to earn less money than ads shown on desktop computers, the Times states.
The Times says that, “When people click on image ads sold by Google that appear in cellphone apps, Google will double-check that the person wants to visit the advertiser’s Web site before taking them there, by asking them to click again on a button labeled ‘visit site.’ ”
The Times says that while Google tests indicate the approach “decreases the number of clicks on ads,” it “increases the number of people who make a purchase or otherwise interact with an advertiser after clicking.”
The second effort concerns a patent application by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and VP Greg Hart originally filed in February 2010 but only disclosed last week for an “airbag” for smartphones, or as described in the patent application as “a system and method for protecting devices from impact damage,” GeekWire reports. I wonder if they also filed a patent for a smartphone life preserver, since 19% of cellphones are reportedly dropped in a toilet.
Reading the patent description and looking at the published pictures, I think Bezos and Hart’s real calling is in designing advanced defense systems, especially the ones that are blindingly ingenious but utterly useless.
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.