The Money Pit
I ran across this article on Sunday, and found it fascinating.
It’s about the federal government’s retirement filing facility, which is housed in an old limestone mine in a small town in Pennsylvania. Yes, federal employees’ retirements are actually processed and stored in a big limestone cave. By hand! Pretty cool, right?
I mean, pretty cool in an “isn’t that crazy” way, not in a “we’re living in the future” way.
A few parts of the story reminded me of California. One is how the federal government has tried a few times to computerize the process, but all the attempts failed. California’s Oracle scandal was the most famous of the state’s technology failures, but not the only one. The state’s paycheck system is still being run on a system designed and implemented before the era of personal computers, and attempts to upgrade it are almost ten years old and not going well.
Recently, I requested some specific financial data from the State Controller’s Office. They were willing to help, no questions asked, but they told me it would take a couple weeks to compile it. I told them that was no problem, but I wasn’t trying to create so much work for them and if they’d just send me the database or spreadsheet I could parse out for myself what I needed. Turns out they can’t do that because their system is so old.
They sent me a document with a fantastic amount of detail two weeks later, as promised. As a PDF.
I asked if I could please have the document the PDF was based on: spreadsheet, word processor, whatever. They wanted to help me, but they couldn’t. There is no other format they are technologically capable of using to give me the data.
Hmph. Like a lot of people these days, I like to manipulate data. I make charts and graphs, I compile and subtotal by region, or by type of county, or I combine the data with other data I have to show interesting connections or trends. I have come to expect all data to be available this way. If it’s from anytime in the recent past, why wouldn’t it be?
In these cases, the government agency was trying to be helpful, but was limited by technology. But a lot of government agencies that make data available online only provide it as a PDF when the underlying spreadsheet is saved in the very same folder on an analyst’s computer. Other times data exists but it’s only available upon request.
I say, put links beside that “pdf” that say “xls” and “csv” and “mdb”!
I say post the GIS shapefiles!
I say trust the people. The information is theirs, you’re already providing it, let them use it!
(I missed Sunshine Week because I had the flu. What an unfortunate coincidence, eh? I’ll making up for it this week with another post or two here, so stay tuned!)