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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 29 June 2018, 4:56 pm

Think Big

Oh government. You really shouldn't bite off more than you can chew.

Once, big government projects were the key to a good economic recovery. Bridges, dams, roads, office blocks, saw mills, you name it, they built it. 

Back then of course the government worked for the people because all of the people worked for the government. Work for the airline? Government owned. Schools? Government owned. Universities, hospitals, police, airport, electricity, telephone companies? Government owned.

So Think Big projects were a great way to both bolster the spirt and boost the economy. When they worked, of course.

Today, things are different. Now we've privatised almost all of the above list and the bits that are left don't really require a lot of big ticket items. Government department expectations have become leaner and quite a bit meaner over the years.

So when Inland Revenue announced it would need a new computer system and it would need to spend upward of a billion dollars, eyebrows were raised. Tea cups were rattled. Breaths were taken, some quite sharply.

Figures like that are prone to project creep and now, as the project is really still in its infancy, the number has ballooned out to $1.7 billion, which is an extraordinary amount to spend on a system that doesn't create the world of Mordor in intricate detail for your viewing pleasure.

Sadly, the first part of the upgrade, the online system for submitting GST returns, has had a few teething problems. Accountants have been unable to log in, or if they can can't seem to manage their clients' accounts. Even after Inland Revenue announced all was better and things were working, complaints continued to flow.

Some of it we can put down to new users being grumpy about a change in process but unfortunately not all of it.

Inland Revenue isn't the only agency so afflicted, however. The Auditor General is raising questions about the District Health Boards joint venture known as the National Oracle Project which is now apparently $88 million in the red before it starts to deliver any value at all.

Australia is no better. The NBN project is a catastrophe, seemingly unable to be anything more than a barrel full of pork for Telstra to pick through on a whim. 

Major projects like these are of course going to raise issues and uncover problems the original bids didn't foresee. But all too often we see departments being buried under the weight of public spending, over-promised capability and of course public scrutiny. 

Because this isn't to say that only government projects have these problems, just that we rarely see the company failures as they're kept away from daylight. They happen though, as any major corporation will tell you.

The trick, it seems, is not to take on too much in one go. And that's a lesson that never gets old.


Computerworld - Inland Revenue blames IT glitch on telco provider

RNZ - Businesses rebuke IRD's GST system

NBR - IRD promises leniency on late GST penalties following technical foul up

NBR - IRD says glitch fixed: not so, says tech-savvy user

NBR - IRD gets ticking off from Auditor General over $1.7 billion upgrade

NBR - Auditor General raises questions over $88 million health project

Reseller News - Facing budget deficits, Ministry of Health targets platforms "at risk of failure"


Breach in security, breach in trust 

News just in - Ticketmaster not only charges like a wounded bull, has a user interface that defies belief but also, apparently, loses track of just who has your data.

In the UK at least (although this reporter would like to suggest the website is still a bit pants).

This time round, "malicious software [was detected] on a customer support product hosted by Inbenta Technologies, an external third-party supplier to Ticketmaster". While customers outside the UK are probably not affected, they are warned to check their accounts for the ubiquitous "nefarious purposes".

And much as I enjoy pointing at the UK and laughing (or crying, either or), it's not just them. Locally we have our own case study in what not to do when presented with clear evidence of a security breach.

Petrol station chain Z Energy has had to eat public relations humble pie following revelations that its Z Card Online system, which allowed around 45,000 mostly business customers to use their fuel cards at stations around the country.

Despite being alerted to the flaw in November last year by a member of the public who discovered they could see other user's data.

Z did the worst thing it could and kept the breach to itself, eventually taking the system offline but not informing customers of the security issues until challenged by the investigative reporting team at Stuff.

Hopefully the new Privacy Bill will include extremely onerous penalties for such lapses in judgement because without them companies will continue to pretend nothing is wrong as the benefit they make from offering up such capability as online fuel ordering and managing far outweighs the paltry sums they get slapped with, if at all.


Stuff - Ticketmaster warns New Zealand could be affected by data security breach


Stuff - Z Energy security breach admitted as CEO fronts and apologises

Stuff - "Certainly a security breach"

Computerworld - Z Energy shows how not to handle a data breach, InternetNZ says


Hello Computer

The thing about the future is it's always changing.

One minute we're looking for rocket backpacks and flying cars, the next it's cyber-space and cyborg implants.

Remember watching SF shows in the 1970s? Full of robots and buttons and toggles and computers that spoke like a synthesiser? Oh how quaint, we think in the distant future of 2018. Today's SF shows of tomorrow have wavy-hand screens, everyone carries smartphones of a kind and they're on social media like that still existed.

I would suggest that the future is unlikely to look quite like that because wavy-hand interfaces and floating images projected on thin air aren't all that cop.

But what I am intrigued by is the growth in voice-controlled services. This is a rapidly evolving area that is only going to get better and easier to use as programmers come to terms with things like common usage, rules that are implied but rarely spoken about and of course the Kiwi "iccint" which can throw even the most patient of listeners.

Amazon has to be the front runner in this particular race. Google and Apple are both heavily invested but Amazon is capturing the imagination and doing more than just adding voice assistants to existing products. The smart speaker technology is evolving rapidly and while there are still hiccups (if you can call listening in on a conversation and then emailing a transcript of it to someone mentioned in the chat a "hiccup") the usability is improving daily.

The biggest problem to overcome is probably user inertia. I use Siri almost every day but I don't know anyone else who does. I bark orders to Siri while I'm driving and usually she gets it right - nine times out of ten I'd say (although she does struggle to play The Mutton Birds when I ask, preferring to give me Steve Martin for some reason. I know not why).

Hands free, voice activated interfaces are part of the answer - heads up displays will be part of the other side of the coin I believe. I want information scrolling across my glasses please, and by information I mean TV shows, not spam thank you very much.

But that's yet to get out into the wild in any significant way so for now I'm all about shouting at my phone instead.

In fact, one SF iteration did do well in this regard - Star Trek's Scotty did so well in 1986's Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.  Always trust Scotty.

ZDNet - Amazon's platforms, ecosystems and speed herald a voice-first transformation

Investor Place - Can Anything Truly Stop Amazon's Alexa?

The Drum - Is voice really the future of search?

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Hello computer


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