Weathering Y2K Backlash

For the past two years or more, everyone associated with information technology

has focused their energies on fixing the Year 2000 computer bug. At the

end of it all, Jan. 1, 2000, came and went quietly, so we can put the problem

behind us. Or so you would think.

Unfortunately, the uneventful New Year has left some people bitter. To them,

the lack of problems on Jan. 1 and ensuing days seems to signify that no

problem ever existed. They think the millions of dollars spent by state

and local government agencies appear to have been wasted.

At a very basic level, that perspective fails to recognize that many problems

did not occur because of the money and effort that were devoted to computer

fixes. But that simple response really does not do the situation justice.

In particular, it fails to recognize the great uncertainty created by the

Year 2000 computer problem.

Many Year 2000 problems were fairly simple in nature. IT experts had

no problem identifying and fixing glitches in applications that used days,

months and years to perform calculations in a straightforward manner. No

one expected problems with such systems.

But other systems use date code in less obvious ways. Radars and other

systems that track changes in information in real time required a fairly

arduous effort to find and fix potential bugs and to test the systems thoroughly.

Add to that the large number of embedded computer chips that provide the

technical underpinnings of many towns and cities. Traffic lights, utilities

and other key services rely on such chips. Agencies did the best they could

to find and replace those chips, but most agency officials conceded that

potential problems remained.

People generally did not know what would happen if some chips were missed.

The chips may or may not have been date sensitive. If so, would there be

isolated problems? Would there be cascading problems?

That uncertainty defined the problem that government agencies had to

confront. It could be that no major problems would have occurred if agencies

had hedged their bets and fixed only the obvious glitches.

But when public safety is at risk, and a potential solution is within

reach, government agencies are obligated to react. It may seem fiscally

foolish to take action based on the worst-case scenario. Agencies, though,

rightfully recognized they had no other course of action.

Such subtleties are difficult to convey in a public debate. But as we

head into this new year, let's just be thankful that enough people understood

the situation and reacted accordingly, paving the way for smooth sailing

into the new millennium (whenever that actually begins).

John Stein Monroe



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