"OH, THE COMPUTER MADE ME DO IT!"
[from June 2002 issue]

PRIOR EDITORIALS ARCHIVED HERE


Blame it on The Computer! It's always the computer's fault. Well, sometimes it is, as we who use the things on a daily basis well know. Bill Gates, on the other hand simply blames us humans. Well, he's just out to protect his rear end.

But what's the excuse down in that black hole known as DC government? Motor Vehicles blames the supplicants for license renewals, they blame DMV, some of us are blaming Suzanne Peck. She's the Chief Technology Officer responsible for finding and hooking up that monster computer called "Destiny"--whose destiny it seems to be to destroy everybody who comes in contact with it. We wonder if it's a descendant of Hal?--that famous computer who (yes, who) helped us wonder about space exploration.

Just the day before we sat down to enter these thoughts into our very own psycho computer, at-large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, who chairs the Committee on Public Works, held a hearing and, wow, did she ever get an earful--and she gave as good as she got back to the city's geniuses who plugged the thing in and are using it to drive everyone bonkers--everyone except this writer who doesn't drive a car, although we do have to worry about whether it is safe to try to renew our so-called non-drivers drivers license (yes, they expire, although it's never been clear why since their only purpose is to be a photo ID and not attest to whether the holder is qualified to drive a vehicle).

Getting back to the point at hand, who or what is at fault here? We think it's not simply the DMV bureaucrats or simply the technology office procurement geeks, but a combination of both. It is surely not the fault of the hapless citizen-supplicants as one bureaucrat implied the other day, suggesting that none of this would be happening if people actually had paid all the bills and fines they have owed the city for years and years.

That's a crock!

Technology Officer Peck has suggested that there is nothing at fault with the new computer system, that it is in fact performing precisely as it was intended and so the city really did get its money's-worth. Maybe so, but what is really at fault are the humans who thought only in machine terms and apparently never wondered about the--especially here in DC--fallibility of the pre-existing data lodged in all those other computers now being fed into the be all of end all Destiny. Have they never heard the expression, "Garbage in, garbage out"? We don't know a computer person anywhere in America who hasn't at one time reminded us of that adage. And that, we believe, is where the problem can be found.

We had thought that it was easily common knowledge among all DC government personnel that for years the record-keeping throughout city agencies was all mucked up and that the accuracy of any data base anywhere was to be suspect. It certainly has been common knowledge out in the public arena; maybe DC executives are in denial. But knowing (or should have known) that this is a major problem government-wide, Suzanne Peck should never have had the new system installed at maximum service capability. Yes, the potential for efficient tracking of unpaid obligations (which the law says cannot remain unpaid if one is to wish to receive a license) is a wonderful capability, and to purchase a system that allows for this surely is to be applauded.

But what is not to be applauded is that the geeks went ahead and installed the thing, full-blown, and ready to use every and all data it would mine from other city systems at a time when the accuracy of that other data is seriously questioned. Much work first needed to be done with those outlying data centers before allowing the stuff to be fed into Destiny which would then, pardon the pun, muck up peoples' destiny because of out-dated and inaccurate information. And, then, to rub salt into the wounds, say it is for the aggrieved taxpayer to carry the burden of proof.

We also do not understand how it is possible that the Chief Technology Officer never apparently considered this problem. By her own bragging to Mrs. Schwartz that she and the head of DMV had been meeting continually over many months to work out all the relevant details she has demonstrated that she was not on top of things. Is it really possible that this concern never was raised? Maybe the DMV person wasn't concerned, but Mrs. Peck sure should have been; after all, she's got a professional reputation riding on whether the thing was going to work as she promised. Now it doesn't, and she's seemingly not even admitting the possibility that she overlooked a real glitch possibility and so now she's stuck with the fallout and she doesn't like that one bit.

So, until the underlying problem is solved--and it will probably take a couple of years at best--we think city council intervention is called for to require that Destiny be unhooked from the outside computers until the mess is squared away and until then just have it carry out strictly DMV functions.