Friday, May 21, 2010

Hubris

Rarely do we hear the S.O.B. word said out loud on local television.  As a curse word it's banned by broadcast regulations, but even then, it hardly gets much use in favor of native, er, color.  But there it was yesterday, not once, not twice, but three times in succession.  Screamed, not said, I might add, or perhaps spewed is the better word, issuing as it did with fire and venom from the mouth of Zeus-in-the-mountain Rep. Teddy Boy Locsin.  If you didn't catch it live, too bad: nothing quite like the total surprise of an unscripted uncensored outburst caught in the moment on national TV.

In a way, it was an explosion waiting to happen.  For the longest time, Locsin had been the staunchest advocate for poll automation.  He was at the forefront of assurances that automated elections were necessary and would go without a hitch.  But while the May 10 elections were not the catastrophe we feared they would be, neither were they the airtight exercises that COMELEC and SmartMatic/TIM promised.  Now every little bit of niggling doubt is just so much straw for clutch at.

All the questions now coming out at the House Committee hearing on poll fraud allegations show how little lawmakers really understood automation would work.  At long last, the questions they're asking have the semblance of intelligence, coherence, and relevance to IT; but remember, these are the questions that citizens' groups put  forward many months ago, questions the same lawmakers swept under the rug with the bluster of assurances.

The hearings drive home an important lesson in Information Technology: IT is not about the tools, it's about the processes.  Up until recently, the debates have centered on the PCOS machines, ignoring the procedures for security, control, and risk management.  Because of the lack of rigor in the processes, we end up with this mess.

Focusing on the PCOS machines allowed the general public to focus on a piece of technology that they can understand.  Because people handle cellphones and laptops and iPods every day, because they know how to use Facebook and Twitter, they think that they already understand technology.  But in comparison to the demands of Information Technology?  These are just toys and amusements.

Information Technology, to a great degree, is about risk management.  Expect machines to fail, people to foul up, processes to go awry.  Therefore, make plans and backup plans and backup plans to the backup plans.  Test, simulate, conduct dry runs, train; rinse and repeat.  From the looks of things, no such exercise of any rigor took place, or at least in any way that could be said to be transparent.

As an IT project, the May 2010 election is about as hairy as they come, a one-shot all-or-nothing hail-mary damn-the-torpedoes deal.

In a way, I pity the SmartMatic/TIM consultants as they squirm in their seats and nod yes sir yes sir yes sir.  The fact that they managed to pull together the semblance of an election at the last minute was, in itself, a monumental achievement albeit an imperfect one.  But it's also a cardinal rule of IT that It's Always The Vendor's Fault.  The vendor is low man on the totem pole, the one who always gets shat upon.

SmartMatic/TIM worked with specifications drawn by customers who didn't fully understand the processes or the technologies, and supervised by an agency notorious for its lack of credibility.  But there you go, you reap what you sow: whenever there were questions and objections, they just mowed them down with bluster.

I find the House Committee hearings all the more enjoyable because we finally get to see, on national TV, all the parties pushing for this project finally in the same room:  the COMELEC, SmartMatic/TIM, the sober whining ruling party losers, and best of all, Zeus-in-the-mountain Teddy Boy Locsin.  The drama couldn't have played out better if Sophocles had contrived it.

Hubris, ladies and gentlemen, the essential element of Greek tragedy.  Gotta love it.

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