Trainspotting is still a popular hobby in UK; spotting computer-related foul-ups may soon become as popular, for last week UK residents (and many visitors) experienced a full train-yard-worth of computer woes.
We start off this week’s review of IT hiccups with the UK National Air Traffic Services (NATS) nighttime to daytime operations switchover that didn’t happen as scheduled at 0600 London time Saturday morning. As a result of the failure, which affected controller communications, hundreds of domestic and international flights into and out of the UK and Ireland were delayed and many cancelled. NATS went to its back-up system, which allowed it to operate at about 80 percent of capacity; full operations were not restored until 1900 Saturday night. The effects of the problems were felt well into Sunday.
Early last Monday evening, the Royal Bank of Scotland Group's computer systems, which support RBS along with the two other banks (NatWest and Ulster Bank), went down for three hours, halting all three banks' financial transactions. The banks’ 15.7 million customers were not amused, it being Cyber Monday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year. As you may recall, the RBS Group suffered a massive computer system meltdown in June 2012 that lasted nearly two months before it was fully straightened out. That snafu was preceded by a major outage in November 2011. Bank CEO Ross McEwan apologized for the latest cock-up, blaming it on RBS failing to “invest properly” in its IT systems “for decades.” I am sure that apology was just the tonic to mollify customer anger. Just to add to the fun, on Wednesday, the three banks’ online systems were unavailable for about an hour because of a denial of service attack.
Also last week, the German-owned gas and electricity supplier Npower sent out letters to its 3.4 million English and Welsh customers apologizing for “service issues resulting from the installation of a new billing system and a promise that customers will not lose out financially as a direct result of these issues.” It is estimated that over a million Npower customers either owe money or are owed money because of problems with the £200 million billing system that was installed in 2011. At the time, Npower was bragging that because of its deliberate approach, it wasn’t expecting any problems with its roll out.
Lest we forget, the Affordable Care Act website that was rebooted 10 days ago hasn’t fully escaped the IT-related problem orbit. The good news is that people are increasingly able to enroll for health insurance through the federal website, with more enrollments in two days after the reboot than all of October, when it was first launched. The bad news is that, of the 127 000 people who enrolled through the website in October and November, roughly one-fourth of their applications contained errors. The result: enrollees may not have insurance even though they think they do. The reboot has reduced the error rate to “only” 10 percent, the Obama Administration says, but with many more folks being able to sign up, that may not be exactly positive news. In addition, the Administration is now trying to discourage the use of paper ACA applications “because of concerns those applications would not be processed in time.”
State health insurance exchanges in Maryland and Oregon continue to have problems, while in California, the exchange secretly sent the names, addresses, phone numbers and addresses of tens of thousands to insurance agents of anyone who started a health insurance application, even if they didn’t complete it. That news hasn’t gone over well, even though California says that what it did is perfectly legal.
Finally, today is Grace Hopper’s 107th birthday, appropriately marked by a Google Doodle. I was privileged to meet her twice when I worked as an electronic engineer for the Department of the Navy in the 1970s; she was truly a remarkable person.
UK National Air Traffic Services Night to Day Switchover Doesn’t
Royal Bank of Scotland Irritates Millions of Customers Once More
Npower Apologies to English and Welsh Customers over Unacceptable Computer Billing Errors
Of Other Interest …
Photo: Steve Parsons/AP Photo
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.