Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Database Disasters


Last Thursday, I noticed serious problems on my library’s online catalog. There were a number of book entries that said, “This record is not available.” In addition, there were two entries for the same book. A new website is coming. Any connection?

Then I remembered a story from Wednesday night on PBS about the LA school system records disaster. The new system “has caused chaos for kids, teachers and administrators.” “[E]very department had its own system, they didn’t talk to each other.”

While you can read more here, you should begin to smell a common rat. For example, you might recall my remarks in this blog about the VA MyHealthEVet system. And I know you’ve heard plenty about the initial failures of the ObamaCare website.

While my first example was a library catalog and the second a school records system, they both access, maintain, and update databases. As do the VA MyHealthEVet and ObamaCare (HealthCare.gov) examples. All are databases done badly.

You might think the reason is because they are all government sites. Not necessarily so. We hear about these problems because they are public websites. I doubt we’d hear if they were private.

I’m telling you about these problems for two reasons. One is I know from whereof I speak. My first big project was a “natural language financial data-processing and statistical analysis system.” A big program capable of handling multiple databases.

Reason two is it feels like everyone has lost theirs. Reason, that is. No one seems to know the basics of databases. Especially when I see/hear comments like “they didn’t talk to each other.” Talk to each other? What do you think the Internet is?

In that same PBS story was the recommendation: “You want to start off small and work out the bugs.” Ya think? Programmers have to be told this? Does no one remember anything learned in the past sixty years? Can’t they even apply what’s in the books?

Never mind database disasters. In a PBS interview with Nissan’s CEO, he said they’re working hard on automated cars. Now we’re going to have to deal with cars driven by bad software!

If you haven’t thought about it, you will by 2020 (according to Nissan’s CEO). Now think about this: automated cars will need databases for the roads, regulations, and registrations.

How long will it be before software incompetence begins to spread database disasters all over our highways? I’m betting the insurance companies will be raising their rates well in advance.

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