16 April 2007

The Perils of the Information Age

This Associated Press article should serve as a warning to those who would argue that new technology is inarguably superior to what came before:
The state Mental Health Department agreed to pay a Los Angeles hotel $877 million in 2005 to hold a two-day training conference, according to state records. $877 million? For a two-day conference?

It's wrong -- not even close. The actual contract was $36,200 and the agency spent only about $21,000, invoices show.

Inclusion of the dramatically higher amount in a vast computerized index of state contracts was an honest mistake, the result of a worker typing a billing code where the contract's value should have been listed, officials say. An attempted fix created a duplicate listing, leading to confusion rather than clarity.

Those problems point to a larger issue: The database set up to provide a window into how California spends billions of taxpayer dollars is badly flawed. The inventory of tens of thousands of contracts and purchases is littered with typographical errors and jargon, undercut by omissions and weakened by uncertainty over what gets listed, when and by whom, an investigation by The Associated Press has found. ...

Indeed, big mistakes can occur with a missed keyboard stoke and there is no comprehensive way for General Services to find and correct them. The agency says the responsibility for accuracy rests with each state department, in what amounts to an "honor system."

"DGS clearly would not be able to tell that there is 100 percent compliance unless we monitored and double-checked each of those hundreds of thousands of entries," spokesman Bill Branch said.

There isn't anything close to 100 percent compliance, AP found while reviewing entries on thousands of contracts.

For example, computer records show in September 2004 the Conservation Department agreed to pay $32,000 to Arrow Restaurant Equipment for a coffee maker. The department has no record of such a deal.

That's because it wasn't a Conservation Department contract. It was the Sierra Conservation Center, a unit of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. And it wasn't for one coffee maker, but 20 commercial-sized machines.
As I have argued before, technology cannot be inherently good or evil, efficient or inefficient. There certainly can be technologies that are less conducive to efficiency, as well as technologies that are more useful for people with immoral actions in mind, but the technology is only so efficient, good, and useful as its operators are.

Indeed, in some ways, this database technology is more dangerous than the systems that preceded it; a single slip of the finger can result in disastrously high or low figures being recorded in the state's budget (or at least estimates designed to help determine the budget).

I see this in a part-time technology-based job I have, too -- people constantly make small mistakes that they never would have the opportunity to make if they were working with hard copies.

No, I'm not a technophobe, but I think it's pretty clear that the information age is not without its pitfalls. And human fallibility almost guarantees that we those pitfalls will get a lot of use, regardless of how important accuracy is. Quality-control programs can only help so much...

Never before have so many minimum-wage workers been able to screw up so much by doing so little wrong.

No comments: