In code

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When I first started in architectural practice, engineers still used punch cards to hold the codes defining their calculation data. Containing a series of blanks and holes, the cards were identical to those developed in 1804 by Joseph Jacquard for creating the complex patterns used on 19th Century weaving machines.

In the modern world they were also a key reason why George W Bush was elected President of the USA, when voting machines failed to fully punch out selected holes in voting cards.

Using punch cards to hold information codes was developed as early as 1732, but Jacquard was the first to see how you could use a binary code (blank + hole, 0 and 1, etc) to programme a machine — effectively creating the first computer.

In 1853 Samuel Morse used a similar way of coding data, and by adding electricity, developed the first effective means of instantly distributing information over distance — in a way, the first internet.

The original definition of a “computer” did not describe a machine but “a person who analysed information”.

Modern genius Alan Turing looked beyond this definition and used the same principle to develop the first analytical computer, successfully cracking the Enigma codes used by German forces during World War II.

A real breakthrough came with mathematician Claude Shannon, who wrote a paper in 1948 titled “A mathematical theory of communication” while working in the Bell Research Lab in New Jersey.

Shannon was also the person who took the words “binary digit” and created the term “bit” to describe the smallest unit of digital data.

This led to the development of electronic computers — machines that could carry out multiple tasks and functions by using a range of different coded instructions, or programmes.

Digital disasters

It seems inevitable that whenever a government agency decides to invest in a new IT system the result is either a complete disaster or a monster budget blow-out.

The Ministry of Education’s Novopay system, introduced in 2012, was considered a disaster, but at least it only cost $182 million.

This pales into insignificance against the latest effort by our so-called Auckland Council super city, which has managed to spend $1.24 billion to date on what is called the New Core project.

This was an attempt to provide a single source of data and information supply for the newly amalgamated councils and associated COOs (Council Owned Organisations).

The new system goes online in June 2016, and time will tell if this will “increase the ability of Aucklanders to engage with council online”.

Incidentally, $1.24 billion would have covered Auckland Council’s share of the inner city rail link project. It’s difficult not to be pessimistic about how accurate those estimates finally prove to be.

In Australia, the disastrous eHealth programme has so far burned through more than A$1 billion with, effectively, nothing to show for it.

The grandly named “Learning Management and Business Reform” IT system for New South Wales state schools has so far eaten up some A$578 million and still doesn’t work.

Why do public IT systems go so wrong? The first mistake made is the level of capability and experience of the people devising these projects.

Often there is insufficient understanding of what an IT solution can and cannot achieve.

There can also be a lack of appreciation of whether the underlying information can be effectively digitised, as the data for analysis may not allow simple classification.

 

The key

A clear, precise and achievable brief is the key to gaining a timely result within an approved budget — assuming that you choose an organisation with the necessary skills, bound by a contract that rewards and demands the required result.

A real concern in the public sector is the complete lack of accountability by heads of departments and their political bosses. In the private sector, if you fail to this extent you get fired.

Competition

Free-to-air television companies are becoming aware of two indisputable facts of modern entertainment — streaming is a growing option for watching films and recent drama series, while potential advertisers no longer see television as their most effective selling medium. The mute button rules, okay?

In Australia, there is a tacit agreement with government that if free-to-air channels develop drama and current affairs programming, in exchange they gain assured coverage of top sporting events which provide valuable advertising dollars.

Now Australian television is looking to government for further legislation to help them compete with new and growing entertainment sources.

However, legislation will only provide a short- term answer. Television channels should look to their own strengths rather than relying on anti-competitive rules and regulations. Competition should be seen as an opportunity to become better at what you do.

Television has a number of clear advantages over streaming, especially while streaming is focused on movies, old TV drama and some niche sports coverage.

Advantages include few problems with interference, high picture quality, and immediacy of coverage of news and current events.

The key is offering watchers more control over programming, coupled with a wider choice of what to watch and when.

Partnered with internet coverage yes, but only in parallel with a better, more responsive and less advertising-driven service.

 

Idiot internet

Someone, who perhaps chooses to remain anonymous, has said: You can find anything on the internet, but only some of it is true.