Friday, August 12, 2005

"There are risks to attracting media attention."

As the government sets out its procurement requirements for an ID system with one sweeping hand, they also seem to be hiding the failure of their GPS-tracking system with another. Praise be for leaked documents.

(via spyblog)

Remembering that accusations of repeated government incompetence, when it comes to IT projects, are oft swept aside, it's worth considering just what relationship the illustrious members of Whitehall have with technology. Hype is so easy to believe when you're under pressure. What's intruiging is not simply the failure of the technology (tests wil always be needed, and technology will always remain a progressive frontier by nature), but the extent to which it failed:

"[GPS] relies on sight of the sky to give a location. The strength and accuracy of the signal generally relies on at least four satellites being visible. If the subject is between tall buildings, a canyon effect can prevent accurate location. Leaf cover and cloud cover can mask the strength of the signal. Location cannot be obtained on planes, some intercity trains and the Underground. Location is usually lost inside buildings. ... There is little prospect of overcoming these limitations in any substantial way during the lifetime of the pilot."

GPS is not new. As such, I suspect that these are facets of the system that any urban-bound GPS enthusaiast could probably have told you before starting the project. It is this utter contrast between what our MPs think technology will do, and what a large number of people know it probably won't do, that I find disturbing.

The FAQ linked to above states:

"We will ensure that lessons are learned from past IT projects."

But what really needs to be fixed is this mismatch between expectation and reality.

The second thing of note in the failed GPS project is the extent to which bad results are actively hidden from public scrutiny, and conclusions are only announced once the "right" result has been obtained:

"We have not sought to publicise the pilot scheme since its launch in September 2004 due to the risks of negative media coverage of the poor results to date. ... We recommend that you agree to the proposed extension of the pilot until 31 March 2006. This would allow sufficient time for improved results and deliver justification of the large financial commitment."

I seem to remember doing something similar in my physics experiments days - namely, reporting what people wanted, not what the truth was. I was, however, 13 years old at the time, and I'm certainly not a physicist in charge of large swathes of people now. If I were, I'd be worried.

Hopefully this is one of those leaked documents that gets leaked properly, into the wide world of the Net. Any links, or any sugestions/information ergarding FOIA-related retrieval, graciously welcomed...

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