On the use and abuse of Technology and its Management from the perspective of an academic at UCL specialising in Project Management, Systems Engineering and Space Science/Technology.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

New Technology Disaster

Here's a story about waste from the streets of England. Generally speaking, the streets of the Kingdom are not strewn with rubbish, by international standards. The systems and infrastructure to support the removal of our wastes might not be the best possible, but they are pretty good.

It wasn't always. Go back a century or two, and you really would be looking at serious daily health hazards, not only in piles of discarded household waste, but also human wastes. Remember the Great Stink? Not many do, that's why I'm glad to plug UCL's Stinkfest.

But I digress. What happens when technologists look at systems for economically collecting waste, with the added requirement of wanting to incentivise waste reduction. This is a new requirement by the way. Back when you could throw everything away, you could run waste as a reactive service. Nowadays there is no "away", and the economist's response is to put a price on waste. From a local council's point of view, this makes sense. Bin-men cost money.

Enter technologists. Let's weigh the bins as we collect, and send you the bill for massive wastefulness. Sounds good, except even if it works in Germany or Shangri-La, it will need installing here. By "it" we mean weighing arms, identifiable bins or houses, recording systems, billing systems, training and all the rest of it. Not a light bulb then, but a complex system. You can expect databases to grind, for people to be standing in the wrong place, and for the odd bit of hardware to get broken. Worse than Terminal 5 on a good day, just like all perfectly normal field tests of things which looked fine in the lab.

Two stories from the press, following a halted trial, (not even a "pilot") in Norfolk:

Daily Mail (hates the government for messing with the bins, and god knows what else) "disaster, devastating blow for the scheme"

Guardian : "Schemes to go ahead"

Partly, these trials got media attention because of the RFID angle "they are spying on our bins, haven't they heard of the Magna Carta?". What most irritates me, aside from the axe-grinding of the Mail, is the complete lack of technological nous. It's obvious to me, admittedly now after years of exposure to the field, that the newer and bigger the tech the more carefully it will have to be prototyped and worked out locally before going live. So it's a "disaster" then? The local Tory MP cheerfully jumps on and pronounces left, right and centre, and tries to shake of the "government-imposed scheme" (the local council would have creamed off a good wodge of the Government grant for trying this out on their patch, and would have been in the front line for savings from a live scheme).

The Grauniad's report on the other hand isn't really looking at the technical risks at all, but sells it as political battle, showing the government's deafness to its critics. It's just as blind to the systems development issues.

The Mail could still be right, there could be serious system-level difficulties with this system, and they could be unique to the UK, or indeed South Norfolk. We just don't know reading these reports.