IT Hiccups of the Week: Computer Issues Create Misleading U.S. Jobless Numbers

Airline reservation problems at United and Jet Blue, UnitedHealth recalls EHR software

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Last week provided a nice variety of IT-related miscalculations, ooftas and other surprises. We start off this week with a follow-on to a story from last week that has created some unexpected consequences.

Computer Issues Create US Jobless Claim Number “Anomaly”

A little bit of background first. You may recall from last week's edition that at the end of August, Nevada’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) took down its 30-year-old unemployment insurance system and began the roll-out of its new US $45 million UInv system, which has had a less than auspicious start including being offline for longer than predicted.

Nevada wasn’t the only state busily upgrading its unemployment system or having problems as a result. California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) has spent US $157.8 million upgrading the state’s 30-year-old unemployment payment processing system. California has the largest unemployment system in the U.S., disbursing some $33 million a day in unemployment checks.

According to an EDD statement over the weekend, there have been “some processing delays in [the] transition” to the new system, which began, like Nevada’s, at the end of August. The statement says that EDD has been “working around the clock to catch up on unemployment claims.” A news story quoted an EDD spokesperson reporting that about 5 percent of the claims—or roughly 20 000—were affected by the upgrade issues. She added that, “We apologize for the inconvenience to those affected.”

Now, for the punch line: Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor released its report on the number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits. The agency reported a drop of 31 000 from the previous week, for a seasonally adjusted total of 292 000—the lowest number since April 2006. According to the Wall Street Journal, drops like that are rare.

Fantastic news, eh, since it could indicate the end of the Great Recession! When the report first came out, economists were overjoyed, until they found out the numbers were “flawed;” then they were a bit upset, to state it mildly.

What the Labor Department's jobless report didn’t disclose was that the drop was related to the computer problems in Nevada and in California. Only after the report was release did the Department admit the discrepancy  to reporters. On top of that, it refused to identify the two states involved, even though it isn’t a mystery to reporters which two states were having troubles upgrading their unemployment insurance systems and reporting timely unemployment insurance claims numbers. In addition, the total claims number was also likely skewed downward because of the shortened work week following the U.S. Labor Day holiday. Finally, Massachusetts’ new unemployment system is said to be “riddled with problems” as well; it is unclear how those problems have affected the total claims number, either.

A Labor Department spokesperson defended the faulty report to the New York Times, saying, “When we get data, we have an obligation to put it out there.” And anyway, he emphasized, "the department did not recommend reading too much into any one week’s figure, at any rate.”

Of course, if the unemployment number is a positive one (and also accurate), the Labor Department doesn’t seemed constrained from touting it from the rooftops, or trying to bury it if is negative. Watch what happens when Nevada and California send in revised unemployment claim numbers later this month.

Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Pierpont Securities, said that the episode was a classic example of “bureaucratic ineptitude.” That is being way too nice.

Later this month, after spending US $69 million, Michigan is going to upgrade its 30-year old unemployment system. It may be déjà vu all over again in October.

United Airlines and Jet Blue Have System Problems

Last Friday, both United Airlines and Jet Blue experienced problems with their reservation systems. According to a story at Fox News story, Jet Blue reported that morning that an “IT system outage” caused by “connectivity issues” (supposedly at Verizon) had caused delays for about 60 flights. However, the Fox story also reported that, “flight tracker FlightAware said it recorded 70 flights that were delayed for more than an hour. Two hundred twenty two flights were delayed for more than 15 minutes.”

A horror more appropriate to the Friday the 13th date on the calendar was the disturbance that hit United Airlines. A computer error on its website slashed United ticket prices to zero (but with the US $2.50 security charge per leg intact). It took two hours before United realized what was going on and shut down its website. But by then, word of the pricing error had spread across social media, with lots of people announcing their good luck.

United, after thinking about it, decided it would, like Italian airline Alitalia did last year, honor the tickets. Apparently, the good publicity was thought to outweigh the costs, especially in light of the bad feelings United’s other recent computer problems have left with many of its customers.

Other carriers, like British Airlines, have not been so generous.

UnitedHealth Recalls EHR Software

Last week, UnitedHealth Group issued a recall of its software that manages electronic health records used in 35 hospital emergency facilities in 22 states. According to Reuters, UnitedHealth—the largest U.S. health insurer—found that an error in its Picis ED PulseCheck software caused some doctors’ notes on patient prescriptions to vanish.

A story at Bloomberg News says that UnitedHealth acquired the maker of the software, Picis, Inc. of Wakefield, Massachusetts, in 2010. Bloomberg also noted that this is the sixth recall of Picis electronic health record-related software since 2009.

In related EHR safety news, the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority issued an advisory last week to hospitals and other health care providers telling them to check the default settings in their EHR and computerized physician order entry (CPOE) systems. The Authority found 324 adverse patient events traceable to supplier-set system default settings not being reset to more appropriate ones matching the operating context of the healthcare provider.

I don’t doubt the suppliers have warnings about checking the defaults in their manuals, but hey, who reads a manual anymore?

Of Other Interest…

UK TSB Bank Website Crashes on Relaunch

University of Minnesota Students Find Extra US $1000 Billed

Amazon Cloud Disrupts Some Websites

Third Outage of New Jersey State Computer Systems Since July

“Technical Glitch” Affects Access to Thousands of Xbox Games

New York City Penalizes Two Testing Companies Over Exam Errors

Illustration: iStockPhoto

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IEEE Spectrum’s risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.