See things clearly

Data flow disasters and public confidence

When large businesses suffer major problems related to information technology, the bad news often hits the headlines, usually because a lot of money has been spent.


One example in the past few weeks is the cancellation of the BBC’s £100 million Digital Media Initiative, which was intended to transform the way staff developed, used and shared video and audio material.


It is understandable that the news media focuses on such failures – “x wastes £100 million” is an eye-catching headline.  But all too often such events quickly become ‘just another news story’ and they fade into the background.


Given our increasing reliance on IT in our daily lives, I think general perceptions of information technology  will continue to be shaped more by our everyday experiences, than by our reading headlines about ‘big ticket’ project failures. 


Here are just a few recent examples of ‘everyday’ IT problems from around the world:

Payments - By standing too close to card readers in shops, some clients of UK retailers had money deducted from contactless payments cards, despite intending to pay for goods by other means.


Public Transport - During May, Montreal’s entire metro network ground to a halt because of a ‘computer malfunction’. Commuters found themselves stranded during rush hour for the seventh time in 12 months.


Medical Implants - The U.S Food & Drug Administration warns that it has, “become aware of cybersecurity vulnerabilities and incidents that could directly impact medical devices or hospital network operations."


Promotional Offers - In Singapore, big prizes awaited the winner of the “World's Longest Virtual Flight competition”.  But a ‘server load balancing hardware failure’ prevented 2000 disgruntled competitors from logging in to take part.


Small Business - During March, 10,000 eBay merchants in Britain, the US, Germany and Australia had their listings removed by a software bug, and were unable to trade for many hours.


Voting - Electronic voting systems, including biometrics, introduced in Kenya’s 2013 presidential election suffered various technical problems.  Hand-counted ballots had to be reintroduced, delaying the result by a week.


Insurance - A system malfunction at a Japanese insurance company lasted two days and disrupted transactions, including payouts and refunds, worth a combined 1.8 billion Yen.

Fundamentally, in each of these examples, IT problems caused data to flow in unintended ways, or to not flow at all.  As a result, expected, and important, business services were unavailable or worked incorrectly, and public perceptions of the business and/or the technology will have taken a knock.


In a world of growing connectivity and rising business complexity, the frequency of such ‘data flow disasters’ is only going to rise.

A key issue for both businesses and governments in the years ahead will be maintaining a high level of public confidence in their information technology solutions.



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