The transient internet revisited

Ambulance picture

Internet attacks crash computers

Internet and computer failures spread chaos across the world beginning last Friday (12th May) as a criminal, or criminal gang, released a malware virus to hijack and hold computer systems to ransom. A much bigger problem than the one I covered last year with my article for the BACOMM course blog on the Transient Internet (8 Jan 2016) A different cause admittedly this time, but an even more catastrophic outcome as the all-digital systems and internet and network linked systems have again shown that when they fail to be sufficiently robust everything grinds to a halt.

“This seems foolhardy – [ …….. ] but ending the tried and tested back-up system for electronic trading does seem to be short-sighted in the light of these recent issues, all of which can be expected to recur.” from my earlier article – Jan 2016.

What is of concern is that, 17 months on from the problems of January 2016, society does not seem to have done anything about this predictable issue of occasional, serious and widespread, system failures. Vital systems like prescription issuing and other medical records are now 100% digital, in many highly important, and system critical internet and network linked processes there is apparently not an analogue based system or record keeping method that can kick-in and replace the digital when it fails. There may well be a generator on stand-by for when the power fails, but no back up for the internet based system, which, given that the internet was developed to provide just that resilience to communications, is a farcical scenario.

Ambulance picture
Ambulance (privatised patient transport) image from 2015. (Author’s own)

Emergency planning thoughts

I retired as an Emergency Planning Officer in 2008. The above is a worrying trend that had begun before I retired. Then it was the Blackberry phone that was the latest in hi-tech all singing, all dancing kit, the latest “sexy” must have gadget and older, more robust systems, like RAYNET were under threat of displacement. There was a perception among many of my younger colleagues that the idea of a radio operated from the back of a car or Land-Rover was unfit for purpose in the 21st Century; despite low battery life on the phones compared to running a radio rig off a full-tank of fuel.  True there are many things computerised systems and modern cell-phones can do that older provision either can’t do or does much slower but there needs to be resilience and back up. The internet is brilliant, but it is a flawed brilliance, as the last few days have shown.

Picture of an early internat capable computer
An Amstrad PC1512. This image is reproduced under Creative Commons rights. Amstrad_1512_DD.jpg: KoS derivative work: Ubcule (talk) – Amstrad_1512_DD.jpg

I am not anti-computer by any means, I use PC, lap-tops, tablets, smart phones and the internet all the time, and was heavily involved with introducing IT and the internet into office systems from the pioneering days of the desk-top PC revolution of the 1980s, with early machines like the Amstrad above,  through to retirement. I still use them nowadays in my secondary career as historian/writer. We have left the analogue world behind, probably for ever in the mainstream, but also appear to have lost some of the caution and planning that went into system design in days that aren’t that long ago in real-time but are an eternity in computer progression time. Don’t overlook the need for an analogue back-up with a simple pen and paper based option for when the fancy IT system fails.

Do they save businesses money today?

The savings from IT were huge when the simple PC systems first arrived; repetitive re-keying and redrafting of work meant the shedding of labour among an army of clerical workers, typists, drawing office staff and the like, and the PC systems themselves were not that expensive. All that has changed, we can do more, we expect more, and the systems require ever more costly experts to get the best out of them. The systems themselves  have also now become expensive too, arguably not in hardware but software. The labour costs shed by the loss from payrolls of relatively low-paid operatives has been replaced by much more expense on hiring IT specialists. Pause for thought and the catch-22 scenario; without this highly expensive kit the NHS can’t perform many of today’s medical procedures but the sheer cost of it means there is no money left over to hire, and adequately pay, the ordinary ancillary staff and the nursing and other care professionals needed on the wards.  We can diagnose the problems with this expensive kit, but can’t afford to keep the wards open to undertake the cures.

IT is not going to go away, but there is a need to think through the result of our headlong rush to adopt digital systems without a thought for how to process their tasks when they inevitably fail, sometimes catastrophically. 2016 (January), 2017 (May), 2018 – ???

Transient internet – a problem?

Cash and cards

Transient internet – a problem?

The transient internet, is it a concern or just one of those things that mildly irritates?  What happens when the internet becomes transient, failing at critical moments in aspects of our lives?

In the modern world we are all encouraged to use the internet.  It is touted as the panacea for everything from home banking, scholarly research and entertainment via live media streams to controlling the equipment in your home with smart apps.

Transient internt - tablet screen Image: John New
Example tablet screen Image: John New

Banking and trading – two recent failures

The first failure (due to flooding of a City’s telephone exchange) has already been mentioned in an earlier Storify post.  The result was a return to cash-only trading, and because the cash for giving change ran out in some (most?) shops, they lost further revenue even where potential customers had notes with them.

The second failure is being blamed on a system error which led to customers of a major bank (HSBC) becoming unable to access their accounts where those are on-line and enabled for home banking.

When the transient internt fails we need cash not cards
Cash, bank card and Oyster travel card. Image: John New

Systems should be reliable but from time to time they fail; what is crucial is that there should be options available to work around these foreseeable issues. In the York scenario, where loss of the internet seriously reduced shops’ ability to trade, this is partly down to what the banking industry sees as progress, namely ending the paper cheque system. Many modern bank accounts do not offer a cheque book.  This seems foolhardy – discourage their use by all means, but ending the tried and tested back-up system for electronic trading does seem to be short-sighted in the light of these recent issues, all of which can be expected to recur.

Free travel in London as Oyster system fails

Underground train, Waterloo Station
Underground train, Waterloo Station. Image: John New

Another recent costly glitch in London may not have been directly due to problems with the internet but was similar in outcome.  It related to networked systems and because the modern expectation is that the majority of users will pay by card, a temporary cash only system was not practical.  The glitch on the morning of 2nd January 2016 is estimated to have cost £250K in lost fares.

Loss of web-sites and the historical archive.

The type of issue covered above arises from short-term problems, with expectations of  resolution in hours, or at the worst a few days.  The long-term transitory nature of the internet runs deeper, however, with pages and links disappearing on a permanent basis. There is an assumption that content referenced via hyperlinks will be there when next wanted, but this is an illusory hope. In preparing this blog, the first iteration of the site was accidentally deleted, the first posts (luckily mostly tests and drafts) were lost; it was the trigger for writing this post.

There are many examples of disappearing web-content and reasons for that.  As a Bournemouth University student, along with roughly 80 others on my course, we created a series of blog posts surrounding aspects of the Uk’s 2015 election.  Those blogs are not now  publicly accessible.  In attempting recently to re-access one of my own posts it appears either they were not up long enough to be fully archived by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, or their format was not fully compatible with that system.

As technology changes so do websites.  As can be seen from the Island-Publishing main site, I also maintain a website for the York Model Railway Show (Current link).  That outgrew the original website hosted on a free site with dial-up modem access back in 2009, and was relocated.  That old site was expected to disappear after 6-months of upload inactivity but is, surprisingly, still there gamely auto-forwarding any unlikely visitors to the new version. Many other sites disappear without trace.

The content from my own first website hosted on Demon was transferred to a totally different URL when I changed service provider but, as expected, the old version went dead immediately because the space was no longer being paid for.  The content all remains live but, if anyone had created a link to that Demon version anywhere out there, those links will now be long-dead.  The new site has a co.uk web-address, it is therefore future proofed for ISP portability provided fees are paid.  However many, many instances are found when searching and following old links brings up examples of links where the destination content appears to be lost forever.  The author Ben Aaronovitch, as an example, had a website (www.the-folly.com) which currently returns in search engines but is no longer live although his blog is live.

Screen grab re Ben Aaronovitch 8 Jan 2016
Screen grab of Google Search re Ben Aaronovitch 8 Jan 2016

Does this matter – should there be more to these stories?

What was noticeable with regard to the reporting of these issues was that reliance on the modern technology without provision of quick and easy alternatives was accepted in the reporting as a fait accompli.

Perhaps it does not matter, but personally I think it does.  As historians we need a preserved archive, print media appears to have a much higher percentage survival rate in comparison to modern technology and the transient internet.

Equally importantly, I am a retired Emergency Planning Officer, and one of the crucial lessons learnt, and repeated in public inquiry after  public inquiry following major incidents, is the value of communications.  The more our society abandons the back-up of low tech solutions like cash and cheques in favour of networked web-based activity the more vulnerable society becomes.  That reporting ignores this is a worry for the future.

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Flooding – Yorkshire

Flooding in Airedale 26th Dec 2015. Photo: Stella New

Horrendous flooding

I witnessed the flooding in West and North Yorkshire first hand yesterday during a visit to my sister-in-law.  I also needed to consume the news on the flooding as it happened in order to plan a return journey. The flooding news varied from excellent, live coverage by BBC Radio Leeds & BBC Radio York, to misleading (BBC travel website version), to surprisingly useless (the Environment Agency website).  This blog post therefore asks some questions of the quality, and usefulness, of the information available.

Flooding in Airedale 26th Dec 2015. Photo: Stella New
Flooding in Airedale 26th Dec 2015. Photo: Stella New

Sadly the flooding is escalating, getting into new areas today as the water flows downstream.  The scale of it is awesome in the genuine sense of the word.  One can see how such monster floods in the past led to legends and fables such as Noah’s flood being passed down the generations until being later written down and preserved.

Excellence of local radio

I am a retired Emergency Planning Officer with experience of major flood events, including the Ouse in York. From that experience I appreciate (a) the difficulty of getting accurate information from an ever-changing live situation but also (b) that it is vital to make accurate information available to both responders and the general public.

The scale of this flooding caught people out.  As a family we had a Boxing Day meet up planned with two car loads driving over into Airedale.  The advance weather forecast was for rain and my daughter and I discussed our driving plans so as to avoid a few bits of road that we anticipated might have some surface water flooding.  The significance of that discussion will be seen later.  On the day it was much wetter than expected but at departure time it did not seem bad enough to abort or delay for 24-hours.

As we drove over, local radio were reporting the unfolding scale of the issue, and that became visually apparent the nearer we got to our destination, although Airedale, at that stage, was not as badly affected as Calderdale. We also began to hear that the roads we had anticipated in advance to avoid due to possible surface water were now flooded and shut!  Although Calderdale was getting the worst of it, the Aire and tributaries were also rapidly rising, the normally placid River Worth was like a white water rapids course and some low lying sports fields passed were inundated to almost the 8ft soccer crossbar height, around 6-7ft of water!

Flood warnings which didn’t appear

Local knowledge of the possible routes back to York suggested that either the A658 or A58 might become flooded where they crossed and ran near the River Wharfe, therefore prudently the Environment Agency website was checked.  This is bearing in mind the Wharfe was already flooding roads and properties upstream of both points. At 12 noon there was no flood warning in place for either Pool in Wharfedale or Collingham, either as a current or expected later scenario. This was extremely worrying.  By the time we came to leave at 2pm the A658 at Pool in Wharfedale was, predictably, flooding and only passable with care but still no warning for Collingham was being given by the EA on-line.  The equally predictable closure of the A58 was announced by live traffic news as we headed eastwards.

What is worrying with this scenario is that if someone with a bit of local knowledge can predict these potential flood spots 36 hours beforehand based on weather forecasts, why was there no on-line EA warning of even the lowest risk level?  We did not predict a biblical deluge, but equally neither did the Met Office issue a red-warning until it was almost on top of the area on Friday morning.  Collingham flooded around 2-45 to 3pm, the Wharfe by this time had already flooded upstream at Ilkley, Burley in Wharfedale and Otley, I knew it was highly likely to flood, it was after all why I had checked the EA website. If I knew that, why didn’t they?  If I had chosen that way to get home the potential was there to be stranded.

The broadcast media constantly advise citizens to check the EA website for the latest information, obviously in anticipation of reliable data.  Based on yesterday’s random sampling of quality – the question has to be asked, what is the point of the EA website flood warning system in the current configuration if expected, and obviously predictable, floods are not being added/displayed?  It was not possible to check whether there is an issue with full content only available via desk-top browsers, with slimmed down data content versions automatically adjusting for viewing on smaller mobile phone screens.  That is an issue for future checking, but if it  is occurring it adds to the problems.

All this is worrying as my main residence is in flood-prone rural West Dorset; when you are out and about you only have a mobile to access the system, and even that assumes access to a signal.  Data coverage, and the lack of it in rural areas, is of course another issue.

Travel news that isn’t accurate

Information should be accurate, however, and update information correctly applied; sadly that was not the case yesterday.  Not only was some travel news misleading, out of date and inaccurate, the BBC were giving opposing messages dependant on which of their media channels you were accessing. I have already mentioned local knowledge, again this appeared to suggest issues with quality of the data accessible for route planning, and where strangers to the area would potentially opt for routes taking them into, rather than away from, potential danger.

I give two examples from yesterday afternoon.  On the morning run part of the A6120 Leeds ring-road near Meanwood had begun to flood as we headed west around 10:30am.  As by the afternoon the expectation was it would have flooded, the BBC local travel service on the internet was checked, with nothing showing as a closure.  As we drove towards it no closure was being mentioned in the local radio’s on-going broadcast.  Arriving at the location, however, we found it was shut, forcing a diversion.  The diversion was unsigned, that is understandable, given how many blockages were in place, but the lack of radio and travel website notification that one of the major routes within the area was shut, and probably had been so for sometime,  was perhaps not!

Equally problematically, the A64 near Tadcaster was being shown on-line by BBC Travel as only passable with care and long delays to traffic; as that was not being broadcast as a current issue, we gambled on that info’ being obsolete.  The A58 has been mentioned already but would have been one of the alternatives.  We drove the A64, there were no problems.  On arriving home the BBC Travel website was re-checked, the false information that had been there most of the day was still present and shown as recently updated!

BBC budget cut backs are wrong

The lessons of 2007 have still not been learnt with regard to this need for quality information so as not to divert travellers into areas that are liable to be the next place to flood, trapping them.  Forcing the BBC into cut backs  will only exacerbate the scenario; weather forecasting needs to be good quality and accurate, not simply based on the cheapest available via competitive tendering.  Local radio is vital, a community asset to be expanded not slashed.

Conclusion

As a citizen sampling a largely unprecedented weather event yesterday the local radio coverage via BBC Radio Leeds was superb, informative and, as it was live with on the spot reporting, current.  Unfortunately the same could not be said of the same organisation’s on-line travel news.  It was proven by practical sampling to be inaccurate and incomplete even with regard to main A roads.  That may not be the BBC’s fault directly, but in a world where the internet is increasingly touted as the source to be turned to for breaking news and information, it is clear that as yet, the back office systems are not serving up the material. The Environment Agency was also found wanting in exactly the same way, back office systems not getting information out fast enough.

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