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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 25 October 2019, 4:00 pm

Electric boogie

Every few years I have a dream. It's a dream of unlimited electricity supply, delivered from sustainable sources, and what that could do for New Zealand as an economy.

Last time round my vision was of a mega data centre hub where the world could store its data and access it remotely using our (then) single connection to the outside world.

Of course, that fell apart because oddly nobody wants to store their data at the far end of the world connected by a single supplier. They want redundancy and competition on the route so they can get more.

Today we do have more competition, and with the cyclical impending demise of the Tiwai aluminium smelter operation (which got a tasty "please keep operating" grant last time round as well as a discount on its power bill but this time is likely to get very little) we have an opportunity to repurpose the electricity supplied to the smelter by Meridian Energy.

The problem for the smelter owners is that aluminium smelting is a competitive business, with China bringing in new plants on a regular basis. It's also not terribly environmentally friendly and at the moment there's not a lot of demand and a huge oversupply, meaning the price has fallen for the product.

Of course, the smelter employs around 1000 people which is a tough hit if you're one of the thousand getting given the heave ho but quite like living in a house and eating food.

So we need an alternative employer, and an alternative use for the power supply (which sources say currently (ha) equates to about 12% of the total loading on the national grid).

We could just pump that electricity into the grid and crash the price by about a quarter. As a consumer lower prices are usually appealing but I think given the scale of the disruption that would cause, it's perhaps best to phase that in at least.

Or we could use the power to take out the need for Fonterra to fire up the Huntly coal furnaces from time to time and really give us green power.

We could build data centres up and down the country and hook them up, and encourage the big guns of the data world (Amazon, Google and others) to set up shop here cheaply and with cheaper, greener electricity than they would get elsewhere in the world.

That's still appealing because I like the idea of us being a net exporter of data and that the future of the country clearly lies in providing (altogether now) a place where talent wants to live.

But there are plenty of data centres in New Zealand already (disclaimer: I do some work for Datacom which has a swag of them) so that's probably well in hand.

Now, for a step change I think we need to think big and electric vehicles are the answer. This year's crazy pipe dream is simple: use some of the surplus to drive down cost of purchase for electric vehicles and encourage uptake with lower-priced electricity. Put a line in the sand over fuel imports for the domestic fleet that's only (say) five years away and encourage a total removal of our petrol driven vehicles (which tend to be older and inefficient) and replace them with cheap EVs. The government could buy every petrol car in the land as a trade in on the bulk purchase of EVs, ship the cars to Japan (ha) or Australia or just crush them and New Zealand could be the first country in the world to go petrol free.

Bold, am I right? Crazy? Probably.

But it pays to think big.

NZ Herald - Owners of Tiwai Pt aluminium smelter seek talks with the Government, raising possibility of closure (PAID)

NZ Herald - NZ sharemarket blindsided by Rio Tinto's review of Tiwai Point smelter (PAID)

Otago Daily Times - Tiwai Point 'on notice' of closure

RNZ - Helter-smelter: What's behind the Tiwai Point review?

Newsroom - Tiwai Point: Should it stay or should it go?


Transport Crazyness

Speaking of thinking big and government and crazy ideas that might just be crazy enough to work… how about a scheme to hook up the entire nation's traffic management and public transport coordination projects into a single behemoth platform that would see synergies and leveraging out the wazoo?

No, actually, it's not crazy enough to work.

But how about if we give the contract in an uncontested fashion to a US-based computer game company? Is it crazy enough then?

Apparently it was, because that's exactly what happened and the tale behind it all includes millions of dollars of public money, the awarding of contracts to a friend of the family, the "flouting" of public sector spending controls, security breaches and a distinct lack of deliverables.

The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) contracted a US-based game company to develop apps as part of its Connected Journeys project. Connected Journeys was supposed to use high tech tools to better coordinate everything from bus rides through to hiring a helicopter, all done through a simple user interface.

The project started in 2016 and soon grew from a team of eight people to around 100 but trouble and rumour started swirling around the team almost immediately. An independent review of the team criticized the chief executive for unfairly awarding a contract to a close personal friend, as well as  blocking competition for a technology contract. He resigned but the damage was done and after spending more than $5 million with nothing to show for it, the project was shelved. Connected Journeys was disbanded in March this year and NZTA now has budgeted a further $19 million to build its own transport data platform.

This went all the way up to the Minister of Transport (one Simon Bridges at the time) who met with the software company several times to be reassured they knew what they were doing. Clearly better procedures would need to be put in place.

But this isn't an isolated incident - there have been a number of similar such snake oil sales to government in the past. Remember IndraNet with its air-powered engines and supercomputers on poles? Or Michael Swann defrauding the Otago District Health Board of nearly $17 million, much of it never recovered?

And that's when things are fraudulent. What about the Police computer project, INCIS, which ran into cost over runs and project creep and a million other issues that blew out the budget by a huge amount?

Government needs good advice not only on procurement processes but on technology itself and while we might have thrown out the national CTO baby, I'd hope we don't throw out the bathwater with it. We need to know our political servants are spending our money wisely, that they're getting good advice and that they're following the process as laid out before them.

Anything else is just crazy talk.

RNZ - Simon Bridges' officials claimed failed tech scheme would be 'transformative'

RNZ - Ex-NZTA boss faulted over innovation unit's 'extensive disregard' for processes

RNZ - Data breach after lax NZTA security

RNZ - NZTA reopens investigation into awarding of contract

RNZ - Auditors probe NZTA's hi-tech Connected Journeys unit

Stuff - Review critical of NZTA role in ticketing project

Stuff - NZ Transport Agency ditches plans for 'Uber on steroids'

Stuff - Luxury cars and the missing millions - trail into convicted fraudster's assets goes cold

NZ Herald - Indranet vision about anything but money (February 2001)

Stuff - Oh look, IndraNet is reborn! (again, again) (March 2010)

NZ Herald - Insights into Incis debacle (June 2002)


Convention Centre 

This is not a drill

Nor is it a blowtorch but we told that one set fire to the Auckland Convention Centre and lead to chaos in the inner city for 72 hours while firefighters battled the blaze (to use the lingo) and the CBD shut down because two of its major roading arteries were full of fire engines and hose pipes.

But it was the smoke from the fire that caused another problem - thick, black, choking smoke that smelt noxious and which we were all warned to stay away from. The Plume, we were told, was particularly gross and if you had any kind of breathing issues (I have a breathing issue - I like to breathe) then don't get caught up in it, was the advice.

But we were deep into day two before a civil defence alert was sent out using the handy-dandy alerting service, and immediately questions were asked.

Questions like, "Why didn't I get it?" which was particularly relevant to this reporter as others around him received the alert, complete with good advice on staying away from The Plume and working from home if at all possible.

But before we blame the technology (or shortly after we blamed the technology if you're me) it turned out to be more about where the user was when the alert was sent out rather than being on the naughty list.

These alerts are only sent to devices that are both capable of receiving them (so smart phones at this point) but also in the affected area and that largely relies on being attached to the correct cellsite.

So I didn't get the alert but the chap standing next to me did, which is perfectly understandable. Save the marketing guy, go on. You know you want to.

Leaving the city later that afternoon I drove across town to get to the motorway south following the diversions in place and because of the weirdness of the route I called up Google Maps on my phone for reassurance. My phone, which is plumbed in to my car speakers, was midway through telling me to turn right in 100 metres when the alert came through and very nearly crashed me into a tree coming in the opposite direction.

Look, I'm all for alerts that do actually alert you but when it's so loud it causes an inner ear disturbance you might want to pull it back a bit.

Fortunately both tree and driver are OK, although I'm sure both of us still have ringing in our ears. The fire is out and the system works well so long as you're standing in the right place. Just don't drive near a disaster and you'll be OK.

Techblog - Civil Defence alerts: probe after many failed to receive warnings

Newshub - Civil Defence defends emergency alert reception rate

NZ Herald - SkyCity convention fire: Why not everybody got the mobile alert (PAID)


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