Digitized Paper Processes of Trinidad and Tobago

Computerize THIS.It drives me a bit nuts when I have to deal with some things in Trinidad and Tobago. When I signed up for electronic billing for Water (WASA) and for Electricity (T&TEC), not to mention Internet (Amplia), I foolishly expected a process that was not reliant on paper.

How foolish of me. I have to print these bills and take them somewhere to pay them, which isn’t really an electronic transaction at all – it just saves these companies money so that they don’t have to bill me for sending me a paper bill, and also, it allows me independence from the local post (TTPost) from sending me my bills late.

Bureaucracy / Bürokratie IITo add insult to injury, the bills don’t just print on one page – they require… 2 pages. Why? Because it’s the same bill that they used to mail to me… and experimentation has shown that, no, I can’t just go with one page. I require both pages to pay the bill.

I’m sure that there are educated people hiding behind this somewhere, but it does their education a disservice to come up with systems that are hardly intelligent. It’s reminiscent of the United States in the 1990s, when some people would not let their fax machines out of their clenched fists.

PaperworkThis goes beyond bill payment – which, of course, is cursed by lack of online payment options for the masses, causing people to lose hours of productivity so that they can stand in a line to create a paper trail. Nevermind the photocopies of identification that still go on.

On a trip to the bank today to deal with paying some maintenance fees, I half-joked to the teller that trips to the bank were like visiting another country. Stamp! Stamp!

Papers, please. Reason for transaction? What’s your dog’s mother’s maiden name? How long was your stay?

Last week, a woman stood before me, not long ago, modem in hand – trying to return it to bMobile – her 5th attempt, which she had documented well with her phone and envelopes full of paper. Why so much trouble? Did you need to ask?

It should be as simple as returning the modem, which they then check the serial number of – it then becomes clear that you’re no longer using it, or should, and be pretty much the disconnection of your account unless you have another modem you purchased yourself and they are already aware of it. But this is not the process.

All of these are symptomatic of people simply adding technology to a paper process – par for the course of a bureaucracy educated beyond it’s intelligence level.

One day, it may aspire to achieve to mediocrity. We’re waiting.

Trinidad and Tobago Flooding 2018: Observations on Government (Pt 2)

800px-Flag_of_Trinidad_and_Tobago.svgIn Part I related to the 2018 flooding in Trinidad and Tobago, I was very upbeat about how the community was handling things, and here, now, I will be less upbeat – but not as a matter of politics. The government response is a symptom of a lack of preparedness for a disaster at this scale.

When I write of ‘this scale’, too, this is not as large a disaster as we have seen in the past internationally with earthquakes or hurricanes or tsunamis or typhoons or… and yet, the reality is that for anyone affected or responding to any disaster, it’s huge. It’s emotional, it’s frustrating, and well intentioned people want to do more and expect governments to do more.

It’s clear that the government of Trinidad and Tobago is overwhelmed at this time. While many people only heard a part of what the Prime Minister of Grenada commented on the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago’s statement that Trinidad and Tobago was not accepting aid at this time, they did not hear the key to it all: Logistics. The Government of Trinidad and Tobago cannot handle the logistics of disbursing more aid at this time according to Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Keith Rowley.

In essence, a flood of aid might be wasted, and the sane thing to do is to hold off on asking for assistance until what is needed is actually identified. This is common sense, but it’s common sense that leaves people when they are flooded with imagery of homes underwater, of people who have lost all but the love of their brothers and sisters.

In the end, while unpopular, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago was honest about the capacity of government to handle the situation – something which has been neglected for decades. People have been uttering, “God is a Trini” for as long as I can remember, a testament to faith that Trinidad and Tobago alone had some form of relationship with a superior being. God simply doesn’t handle logistics when the… water… hits the fan.

Flash Flood South of Couva
Flash flood on the highway near Couva, Trinidad, 2008

I’m critical of government, apolitically. I have been publicly critical of one Minister flying around in an airplane instead of being at his desk, among others, and I have been critical of the Trinidad and Tobago Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) for years.

It was only a year ago when we had to deal with Tropical Storm Brett and it’s fallout – and I wrote some things in that context a year ago that have apparently not been addressed. Flash flooding is not new in Trinidad and Tobago.

It’s getting worse – scientists agree on climate change though politicians do not; the complexity of climate change is lost on many. Sea levels are rising. We’ve been seeing increased rainfall in parts of the world, droughts in others.

red-house---colourSystems do not change quickly. When I wrote about Brett last year in Trinidad and Tobago, I didn’t expect an immediate change – but I did expect at least a few things to change. The ODPM still has a useless app, it’s still ponderously slow to respond for such a small organization in a small country… it’s a bit like a mouse that lacks agility, slamming into walls with the precision of a meteorite. And it’s a symptom of larger issues that plague Trinidad and Tobago.

So no, the government of Trinidad and Tobago doesn’t get a free pass, but the present government needs to turn decades of lack of exercise of this arm of government to deal with things – as well as other things, which I’ll get to in a later post.

The global economy isn’t waiting for Trinidad and Tobago.

Neither is nature.

How many photocopies of ID, T&T?

Computerize THIS.Everywhere I go these days in Trinidad and Tobago, it seems someone wants to photocopy two forms of my identification.

My bank has multiple copies. Lawyers have multiple copies. The government has multiple copies – and guess who issues identification? Water (WASA), Electricity (T&TEC)… the list goes on.

And everywhere that there are photocopies of my identification, people I don’t know have access to them. How can I possibly trust a system that allows anyone photocopies of identification in files?

You want to see two forms of identification – fair enough. You don’t trust the people who are seeing them, so you have them photocopied – now, you clearly don’t trust these people, but you ask the individual to trust them with access to the same photocopies.

There seems to be a special part of the Amazon Forest dedicated to this need for everyone to have photocopies of everyone else’s identification here in Trinidad and Tobago.

It’s just asking for identity theft, or corruption – because those photocopies can be… photocopied… and then they can be photocopied… and since these systems require photocopies… who knows what all these photocopies will be used for?

It’s outrageous. Processes that require photocopies of identification are severely outdated.

I’d even say that they should be made illegal.

Please photocopy this post and hand it to people who are photocopying your identification.

Wanting Things To Work.

A Technology Society Ponders Bureaucracy
A wonderful metaphor of a frustrated technology society that keeps hitting it’s shin on bureaucracy. 

The fun part of this article is that you can replace “Trinidad and Tobago” with just about every country I have lived in or visited and have it be understood. It’s a global issue. 

It’s been a long week for me here in Trinidad and Tobago, yet along the way I met kindred spirits of all varieties.

When I went to one government office, I found that there were no numbers and that people were called as the security guard dictated. Fortunately, she dictated in a way that benefited me, but I do not know that it was fair.  I was done in record time, largely because of things I had done with the office in 2011 to turn the bureaucracy against itself in a loop, in a hope it would be fixed. It hasn’t been fixed, of course, but my prior work and explanation – and I daresay my sincerity – got me out of there in less than an hour.

The next day, I would take the form from that office to Yet Another Government Office after researching the appropriate website as to the requirements. I almost got it done that day – the office required 2 forms of ID, the website said ‘some form of ID’, and I was stalled for a day. The next day, I dutifully returned bearing two forms of ID and some other unrequired documentation to smooth things over. In less than an hour, a complicated process that stymies people for weeks was begun.

I know how those systems work and how they don’t. I have insight. And in both of those cases, I spoke with customer service representatives who were as frustrated with the process as I was and who made a crappy process work right. Whether it works out, I should know within a week.

That’s Not So Bad.

If this sounds like it was easy, it may seem that way on the surface – but it wasn’t as easy as it should be. It wasn’t as easy as it could be. Dealing with government offices, paying bills, visiting the bank – these things are unpredictable. People end up losing hours of work in government offices all over the country. The offices will argue that the people weren’t prepared, or didn’t listen, and some even treat them so. Some people are simply idiots – I found a few sitting around me here and there on their umpteenth time speaking with the same people over and over again but not actually listening.

There’s the way things probably should work, and then there’s the way things really work. It’s that thing that maybe should be called cognitive dissonance I am writing about.

The least stressful way of dealing with things is largely by understanding reality and dealing with it. And yet, decades of doing that here in Trinidad and Tobago have not given any improvement – I will argue that it enables it. I was heartened, though, that a new generation is entering these government offices and that they understand it – empathize – from their side of the desk as well. I thanked them for that.

We Want Things To Work.

We live in a world where, thanks to the Internet, we can see things wrong faster than they can be fixed by the snaggle-toothed gears of bureaucracy. Many systems around the world are outdated by so much that it boggles the mind. For me at times, it’s a special kind of Hell where, as someone who has designed systems, I cringe inwardly even as I keep a smile on my face. Getting angry doesn’t make things better, allowing it to stay the same doesn’t make things better… but here and there some strategic poking might work.

Not everyone can do that. Not everyone can stand up to a system and stare it down with a smile. Most of us get frustrated, angry, depressed… either we are beaten, or we rage against the machine.

Neither works.

To fix the mechanisms of society, we need to not only understand how things work well beyond social-media (read: armchair) discussion, but be able to push things the way that we think they should go. A smile here, a joke there, standing up for yourself yet being flexible enough to get what you need out of the system.

That’s what made it a long week.

Those two offices alone, while I spent less than 2 hours altogether at them, required driving for 2 hours. It required researching things as best I could, it required roughly a decade’s worth of sorted documentation. It required patience that the world as it is pushed onto the shoulders of a once young and passionate man who raged against the machine… until he realized what he was doing wasn’t working.

Until he realized that he needed it to work now instead of when things were done ‘right’ at some point in an unforeseeable future.

Things get better, but it takes a moderate voice to make it happen. Yelling makes you hoarse and assures no one will listen to you. Allowing it to go on unchecked makes you an enabler. To affect change, a clear and human voice needs to be heard.

If only you could explain that to those that rage against the machine… or enable it by their silence.

And still, there’s that young man in me that wants to rage ineffectively against the machine.. which is why I wrote about it for me. Maybe you’ll benefit. 

On Trinidad and Tobago, Policing and Crime

I’m no expert on Law Enforcement. I am, however, a lifelong student of systems with experience ranging from agriculture to medicine, business to the military, and of different cultures. I’m sure I’ll aggravate some people with this, maybe these are the right people to be aggravated.

It’s difficult to live in Trinidad and Tobago and not consider crime. To the simple, it is simple, to the political, it’s politics, and there’s little difference between those two. How crime is considered by the populace affects crime itself – it affects the approaches, it affects the way things are implemented, it affects what is actually considered crime outside of the police service and justice systems. There are so many perspectives on it that, on a slow grey morning, I find the time to explore some of them with you, gentle reader.

The Broad Strokes: The Context

In his January 4th, 2018 Bitdepth, Mark Lyndersay mentions the pronounced dichotomy and the grey in between when it comes to how people see crime in Trinidad and Tobago:

…There are at least two societies active in T&T, one committed to all the lovely sentiments that church-going, law abiding citizens are supposed to abide by and another that LOLs at that type of thinking before stuffing a pistol into their cargo pants and going off to demand what they want…

This is, of course, a brief explanation that is accurate in being vague. It’s exactly right. Speaking for myself, as someone who is not church-going, I fall more closely to the first group than the last. And, because of the nature of Trinidad and Tobago, I end up drinking beer now and then around some more close to the latter at local bars. The street knows who the criminals are, and a balance is there between self-preservation and being an extreme law-abiding member of the South Oropouche Police Council for me.

It’s also interesting to note that Mark Lyndersay and I look at things differently in that we’re generally in different circles garnering the perspectives of different people in different ways. This is one of the many reasons I value what he thinks.

And yet, we can talk about crime in Trinidad and Tobago and come to similar conclusions. In fact, most people have very similar thoughts. I’m just taking the time to go deeper into my perspective.

In Trinidad and Tobago, like other places, there is a veil of what remains unspoken in most company. You just don’t talk about certain things, mainly because you don’t know who you’re talking to will talk to with your name attached. I’ve seen it come back and bite others soundly not in their posterior but in their neck over the years – why would decades of experience relent to yet another attempt by

The same is true of at least some members of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) that I encounter as well. With whispers of corruption echoing through the country beyond what occupies the traditional media, there’s a hard balance to be struck between the police service and the communities that they police. Trust is the core issue, but there is something more endemic: The criminals themselves are ‘law enforcement’ oftheir own areas, sometimes more so than the TTPS, but with their own local ‘laws’.

This leads to the ‘Community Leader’ label that has been applied by politicians for those that operate toward the darker side of grey. The only thing keeping some politicians from those labels are the Laws which don’t necessarily reflect Ethics in society; that so many politicians are lawyers is something that I consider now and then. Community Leaders know each other for what they are, some are just law abiding but have as fluid of ethics as their understanding of Law permits.

This didn’t all just happen one day. It didn’t happen because those without ethics woke up one morning and decided to go on sociopathic or psychopathic sprees; seeds do not grow in soil that is not suited for them.

Socioeconomics

Having came and left Trinidad and Tobago quite a few times over the decades, I have the luxury of snapshots that allow me to see some differences more easily. The poor, as they are, have always been poor. However, people living outside of their means seems to have escalated more. This is not just in Trinidad and Tobago; it’s global, but the degree here in a small island nation is a little more tangible and seems to have accelerated more quickly than other places I have seen.

Why? Well, the most obvious issue is that the economy is arguably not as diversified as it used to be. The sugar cane industry was lost due to government and private industry inefficiencies on a broad canvas of a decrease in demand in sugar due to different sources for sugar, such as corn. Generally, other businesses have been about importing things and reselling them locally; this does well when oil prices are high but it also developed an economical infrastructure that is crippled when oil prices are low. Factor in outright corruption and theft by people sitting comfortably abroad on their ill-gotten gains, and you have what we have now.

Because there was unemployment, the answer was having people cut grass and paint stones white. This was disguised under different acronyms attributed to different political parties by some. This work, sadly, became a means of income near enough to that of a recent University graduate to make it worthy of comparison. Factor in the national pastime of alcohol and politics, like everywhere else, and you find people doing less than more. The minimum wage, something I don’t really agree with in principle due to it’s easily being gamed, is hard pressed to keep abreast of the cost of living.

It seems that there are more single parents, it seems that there are more parents where both partners work to support the family. I write ‘seems’ because there’s really no publicly accessible statistics of worth that I know of; another issue that keeps coming back in my writings.

Because there seems to be more parents working to support their children, there’s less time effectively being spent with children. The moral majority, which is neither, will likely indicate that there are more children having children. Again, I have no statistics. Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s not, but it does seem like the nurture is increasingly required of primary and secondary school education systems whose ability to nurture has become more handicapped. Further, I’d say that the curriculum isn’t as challenging as when I went to school in Trinidad and Tobago – but I am biased and admit that openly.

Meanwhile, one of the other national pastimes of the country is leaving the country. This is what is termed as ‘brain drain’; as someone who could fall into that category, I can say that opportunity in this country is limited – it’s not so much about one’s ability to do things as much as knowing the right people and having enough letters behind your name to make you seem plausible to people who don’t know anything about what it is you do. Even in this downturned global economy, there does seem to be better opportunity for the young to go abroad than to stay… here. The system feeds itself by starving itself.

The centralization of the Trinidad and Tobago budget, too, is a little disturbing. On one hand, the government decides how to support those who supply something locally – for example, chicken – versus those who import. Where money influences politics and businesses that import with more influence, local suppliers are forced to compete at a global level within a limited economy. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but I do know that I’m uncomfortable with a system so easily corrupted controlling such things.

The government now, with less in it’s coffers every year, wants to tax those who are earning less more to compensate for decades of poor planning and lack of diversification. It means less for the government to spend on things to correct the problems that the government created in the first place with bad policy and lack of diversification. Those who like talking about politics will now bring out their knives to stab at their opponents – but really, both sides of the political soap opera contributed and the political discussion simply keeps the easily distracted… easily distracted.

Public servants act like they’re doing you a favor sometimes; in some cases you can find tax-free businesses running to allow people to get through the rampant bureaucracy and poor customer service to get simple things done. Bribery is an open secret. Poor customer service is noted by at least one Minister publicly. This translates to time and money losses for citizens for things already paid for by the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago; in some cases these losses are necessary to avoid penalties and fines that are at least as antiquated as the processes involved.

On the ground, people are not happy with the government – and it’s not a matter of politics if you tune out the politicians. Right now, the national discussion is about how many murders there have been for the year already – more than New York City – and protests in various areas related to infrastructure. One more humorous protest even seems to have worked… so far.

This is, sadly, a result of systems that have worked exactly as designed – except with the perimeters well outside of what the systems were designed for.

Porous borders

I listened as a policeman formerly stationed in Cedros lamented to me that there were 25 points of entry and Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard support has to happen through calling Port of Spain. All manner of things make their way through the borders on an twin island Republic which boasts a Defence Force on land and a Coast Guard at sea – the former assisting the Police, the latter the Police cannot seem to work with. On islands. I’m no expert, but I would think having rapid response vessels in key areas might cut down on illegal trafficking – from guns to drugs, from people to animals.

Politics

I am amused every time someone laments that whoever is the Prime Minister is at fault for crime – and I write that because indirectly, they are in some ways, but the expectation seems to be that the sitting Prime Minister should don a spandex outfit and go fight crime themselves. There’s a reason, aside from not wanting to see anyone in politics wearing spandex, that this does not happen.

The second politicians directly control the police services, or other matters of national security, and they do so without appropriate checks and balances there is the potential for abuse. Don’t like your Opposition? To the Gulag! Don’t like journalists? To the Gulag! Don’t like someone for any reason? To the Gulag!

So, directly, politicians can’t be blamed for such things. And while we have had Ministers of National Security over the year and all sorts of toys bought by the government to support them, they are little more than figureheads. The problem is so well entrenched that it will not be removed overnight – and, as I pointed out above, the larger view of the nation requires that across the board, policies must be implemented that mitigate socioeconomic issues as well as access to government services.

Silver Bullet?

There is no silver bullet. There is no way to deal with this overnight; this goes well beyond simply ‘fighting crime’ but dealing with the issues that create the fertile ground in which it grows. We live in a connected world now, where the Internet allows people to see things faster than any leader can steer through – but steer they must. The delays of antiquated bureaucracies need to be streamlined with common sense and appropriate technology usage (what we’ve seen so far in technology leaves much to be desired).

It boils down to trust – not trust in politicians, we change those like diapers, but trust in systems of governance.

Net Neutrality and Trinidad and Tobago

Internet Innovation is The Goose That Laid the Golden EggThe global debate on Net Neutrality persists and the consequences are writ large for consumers everywhere.

Yet, there’s almost no interest in the Net Neutrality issues arising lately – I spent my time advocating for it to the uncaring masses who are more intent on other things that they believe are more important.

It is important though. Very important.

David Pogue of Scientific American has a great summarization of the net neutrality debate. I suppose the core of the problems happening over the heads of those in the world – not just the United States – is how the FCC classifies things in an antiquated system rather than create a new classification. The lines between being a provider of telecommunications and providing telecommunication services are said to be blurred, but the reality is that they no longer exist. The people who own the infrastructure are competing with those that don’t.

Businesses that do not own the infrastructure are at a disadvantage. They can be squeezed out by those who do own the infrastructure, effectively monopolizing user services. The end user – us, all of us – doesn’t get the variety that it would otherwise have when those that control the infrastructure can make sure that their services can run faster than their competitors. That’s the core of the issue for users.

The Local Context.

In Trinidad and Tobago and likely throughout the Caribbean, Digicel is cheering the repeal of what was called Network Neutrality (I could say it wasn’t for a variety of reasons). Their premise is actually quite real – they are rolling out infrastructure in the region at a cost, and shouldn’t they get their cost back? Of course they should, why would anyone invest in something that they don’t get paid back for? There is no digital philanthropy here, and Trinidad and Tobago’s National ICT Plans have always pushed broadband penetration, enough so that I’m surprised an over-exuberant feminist hasn’t accused the phrasing of misogyny.

Others in the local context of telecommunications have been relatively silent so far – perhaps wisely so – despite the fact that we’re connected to the U.S. pretty directly economically, through Internet connections, and through other things.

What it means, though, is that applications not owned by local providers – Digicel and bMobile mainly, since the most common data usage is through mobile phones, is that they could create competing applications to… for example… WhatsApp, and make WhatsApp undependable in the same twist. And of course, since these same providers have to report to the government by Law, will give away the encrypted anonymity that seems to only hide poor political commentary and bad pornography. Maybe there’s more to it than that, but I haven’t been added to the LOLCats group (please, don’t invite me).

It means local startup companies will have to get the blessings of those who own the infrastructure and maintain a relationship with them – practically at gunpoint.

Yet Digicel makes a valid point: Why invest in infrastructure if you don’t get paid for it?

The debate is much more nuanced than what is presented – arguably, by design. Show me a Member or Parliament, though, who has taken a stance on network neutrality. They don’t really care too much, and that National ICT plan doesn’t address it in any way. It makes us completely dependent on our own legislation, and our own legislation – despite some bold and debatable efforts by the present government – is not fast, is not as comprehensive as they might like to think, and is going to require more intellectual capital to debate and enforce than anyone seems interested in mustering.

We’re along for the ride in Trinidad and Tobago, hoping for a water taxi but instead getting a ferry to Tobago in a country that should be making strides toward progress… not stagnation. It should be making bold moves – debatable moves – that push the envelope for local talent to strike it’s colours boldly on an infrastructure being built rather than making a mockery of it by making it consumption only with no regard to using it for creating foreign exchange (we can talk about those banks another time, right?).

We could be using our infrastructure to leverage foreign exchange income, subsidizing it’s roll out while diversifying the economy. That’s not what we’re doing, and that’s why Network Neutrality is not even discussed outside of Digicel Press Releases.

The Study Of What Others Do.

Taran Rampersad
Courtesy Mark Lyndersay, LyndersayDigital

I hate having my picture taken. Over the years, I have found the best defense from cameras is to hold one. This has weakened in a day and age where every phone has a camera, and everyone wants to be seen with someone – but Mark Lyndersay needed a picture of me for TechNewsTT, where the majority of my writing has been published this year outside of my own websites.

In going to his studio, it was a rare glimpse for me into the world of professional photography. It was clear to me almost immediately, this amateur photographer, that it would take me at least a decade to do the editing I watched Mark do quickly, about how he managed his photos, and about why he did the things he did  – a matter of simple experience that cannot be replaced with meetings and requirements discovery.

You see, I had been thinking of writing my own photo management software in Python – something to automate a lot of things. I had briefly considered this when I had begun selling some of my prints in Florida, and it was latent in my mind as a project to ‘get to’. In conversation with Sarita Rampersad, another professional photographer (unrelated), I had asked her what she used last year and why. It was clear that it would take more than a passing effort on my part to build something more useful than the tools she was using. The visit to Mark’s studio underlined this.

The Roots.

Reflecting on this on the way home, I went back to the very core of how I started working with technology. From an early age, I was encouraged – by rote and by whip, as it were – to observe what was being done to understand how it was being done. This was the root of the family business, the now gone Rampersad’s Electrical Engineering, a company that was built on fixing industrial electro-mechanical equipment with clients ranging from the U.S. Navy to someone who just needed their water pump repaired (Even WASA).

This background served me well over the years, and understandably frustrated managers and CEOs. Knowing the context of how things were used allowed for for useful processes and code; it allowed for things to become more efficient and allowed things to be written to last instead of a constant evolution of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if?”. In a world of agile processes, the closest thing to this is the DevOps iteration of Agile which even people who practice Agile haven’t heard of (because they are soundly in the Agile Cave).

DevOps is a form of Agile where every stakeholder is directly involved. And that, to me, is also a problem because of the implicit hierarchies and office (if only office) politics is involved. It’s a bleeding mess of tissue to sew together to form a frankensystem, but at least that frankensystem is closer to what people actually need. Assuming, of course, they understand what they need.

To me, it boils down to studying what other people do.

Observe, Analyze, Communicate, Build.

When I started as an ‘apprentice’ programmer, this was drilled into me by an Uncle who was a Systems Analyst, and ‘allowed’ me to write the code for projects that he was working on. He didn’t boil it down to observe, analyze, communicate and build; I refined that myself over the course of the years.

No matter the process, it all boils down to someone able to bridge how people work/play to get something done to understand what is needed, and how to make their lives easier through automation and information structure. Observing people do their jobs is important, analyzing it secondary, but the most important part is the one thing that an AI cannot yet do: Communicate, the process of listening, speaking (or writing, or…), and then feedback. This process is most important. In priority of importance, software engineering and I believe any form of process or structural engineering is:

  1. Communication
  2. Observation
  3. Analysis
  4. Build

This is not the order in which things are done, of course, but the emphasis that is most important in understanding how present systems work and how future systems should work.

So often over the years, I’ve seen software engineers relegated to the role of code monkeys with emphasis only on ‘Build’, when the most important parts are about ‘building what is needed’. This is where business analysts got introduced somewhere along the way, but they too are put into silos. This is underlined by HR departments focusing only on the ability to ‘build’, where analysts are expected to be a different sort of role. When these roles were split, I cannot say, but to be both is something that is too large and round to fit in small square holes of the modern enterprise.

It is lost, eroded, and there is a part of me that wonders if this is a good thing. Studying what other people do has allowed me to do so many things within and without technology, and it worries me that in a future where AI will be taking over the ‘Build’ that software engineers aren’t being required to focus more on the soft skills that they will need in the coming years.

Sure, the AI can build it – but is ‘it’ what needs to be built?

A Flood of Failures: Beyond ODPM.

Trinidad flood
Image Courtesy Flickr User ‘Trinidad News’ using a Creative Commons License .

This isn’t a technology post; however, it’s a post about failed systems and tangible problems here in Trinidad and Tobago.

There’s much that has been said about the ODPM, and having seen the press conference they suffered Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the world with, I’ve decided not to throw them under the bus only because they are already under the bus. It’s not even a challenge, but I offer they are under the wrong bus and those that should be with them are not under it.

Instead, I will write perhaps what they should have said as well as what should be corrected.

We have a tendency to believe that the ODPM, like any government agency, is on it’s own. When I look to criticize constructively, as someone with a technical background it is expected of me to point out the incompatible systems, the bottlenecks, and the problems with the apps and websites. Those are painfully obvious, and I have written about them before in the context of Brett.

Instead, let’s look at the systems.

We have a few agencies that are really involved with the flooding who are not garnering the attention they should be after these incidents – the ODPM, in this way, is a red herring offered for the masses to feed on.

The real problem is deeper, and the ODPM’s failures – as real as they are – only skim the surface of the actual problem: Flooding during wet season, water retention during dry season.

Environmental Management Authority

Let’s talk about the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) a moment. Their corporate vision, from their website, is to be “Stewards of Trinidad and Tobago’s natural resources and environment meeting current and future human, ecological and economic needs.”

I’d say that avoiding flooding is a part of current and future human, ecological and economic needs.

Their mission, as they communicate it on their website, is: “We are committed to sustainably manage the natural resources and environment by providing a transparent framework to facilitate policy and decision making in development. This will be undertaken within an approved regulatory system, utilising intensive public education and a collaborative cross-sectoral approach.”

So, how is it that a large amount of rainfall has created a problem that the ODPM cannot handle on more than one occasion? How is the EMA involved in that? Is it involved in that? Should it be involved in that?

It sounds like it is a big part of their job to this layperson.

Ministry of Planning And Development, Town And Country Division
This department is one I mainly know for authorizing land development and even changing land zoning. Clearly they should be working with the EMA; what they actually do is hard to find since they have an almost random note on the Ministry of Planning and Development’s website. They clearly should be more transparent. Website, anyone?

That they are almost always ignored in land development is something that may have something to do with that, as well as what seems to be an arduous process to get anything done – so much so that illegal land development has been an underlying problem with some of the flooding.

This is such a case that the Minister of Works has said he’ll be going after illegal land developers.

And yet, legal land development is hardly something that information can be found for, and what can be found is typically through people who know how the system works and how it doesn’t. In some regards, this could be  considered corruption, in others, it could be an inefficient bureaucracy that frustrates people to the point that they just go do their own thing.

Why is the Ministry of Planning and Development, Town and Country Division, more effective in reducing the potential for flooding? You’d think that they and the EMA would be joined at the hip.

Water and Sewage Authority (WASA)

We’re told that WASA is responsible for all the water in Trinidad and Tobago. Though I have never see it in writing, all water on the ground in the country allegedly is WASA’s water – unless, of course, there is flooding, where not even WASA wants it.

I bring them up because what we see as flooding in wet season is potential water to retain during dry season. In a country where many people still wait for pipe-borne water to fill their tanks on a daily basis, where water is almost always a problem during dry season, one has to wonder how WASA’s water retention isn’t being looked at as well.

Ministry of Works and Transport Drainage Division

As I regularly pass across Mosquito Creek, as many others do, we all see the problems with drainage. Flooding along any roads?

Sure.

The Flood of Failure.

So yes, the ODPM didn’t handle the cascade of failures that creates flooding again. Sure, the Regional Corporations are also culpable at least to an extent – but with all this bureaucracy to save us from flooding, do we really want to blame the ODPM, forced to drink all this water, for wetting the bed? Clearly, the ODPM needs some work, but how much should we expect from them when much of this could be prevented?

Bureaucratese

bureaucracy :-) #jboye14Bureaucracy has it’s own language; Bureaucratese. Over the course of my lifetime, I have learned to translate it on the fly – but apparently this skill is one very few have. In this entry, I will cover a few different words and what they actually mean.

This post will be updated as I things jar my memory.

Acronyms: The more acronyms associated with a bureaucracy, the more inefficient it is. This complexity also leads to potential corruption.

Analysis: A means of finding meaning from metrics or data which may or may not be appropriate depending on the context of the metrics and/or data, as well as what the actual point is.

Bureaucrat: Someone who takes exception to these definitions. Typically someone who has drank the Kool-Aid and is trying to be a distributor.

Capacity: The potential to do something. Unless this word is associated with a concrete way to measure things (see ‘Metric’), it’s a useless word that communicates the hopes and dreams of the Stakeholder writing it.  They might want Funding.

Committee: A group of legal entities, perhaps even Stakeholders, that attempts to do something of worth. It involves meetings, agendas, and all manner of documentation.

Data: A generic term that may or may not involve metrics; metric that comes from forms, as an example, may or may not be useful based on the questions asked and the audience.

Diversity: Diverse, but having little or no conflict that needs to be resolved by people who are actual stakeholders but have no actual say in a committee or group.

Documentation: Something that rarely reflects the reality of a situation in a bureaucracy.

e'<insert word here>’: A 1990s methodology of trying to bring the word ‘electronic’ to bear on matters that are about technology implementation of the word used. For example, ‘eBureaucracy’ would be about using technology to implement Bureaucracy.

eBusiness: What the rest of the world calls business.

eDemocracy: There’s really no such thing. It’s either a democratic process or not.

eGovernance: A reference to policies and processes that the bureaucracies wants to create to make their jobs easier. They usually create committees and have multi-stakeholder approaches to doing this (see associated definitions).

Funding: Money necessary to create more bureaucracy while making sure people who are creating the bureaucracy continue to get paid.

Human Capacity: A reference to people who do concrete things.

ICT: What the rest of the world calls ‘IT’. It stands for Information Communication Technology and assures correspondence has a character that makes people believe that it is somehow different to the popular use of “Information Technology” -‘IT’.

Leverage: A poor reference to physics; the idea is that a small amount of energy can be used to do great things with a lever. When the word ‘leverage’ is used, it’s usually associated with a notion that something will be done. This word, especially when used with ‘Synergy’, typically means you can ignore the sentence since they’re discussing hopes and dreams. Hopes and dreams have a purpose, but in bureaucratese, they are tongue in cheek since bureaucracy chokes hopes and dreams with red tape.

Metric: A way of measuring things; this can be useful if the appropriate things are measured and are simply fluff if the inappropriate things are measured. This word is typically used with the word ‘Analysis’ wandering around somewhere nearby, and thus bears scrutiny to assure that the appropriate things are being measured in the first place.

Multi-stakeholder: See ‘Stakeholder‘. When this word is used, it refers to a mix of stakeholders. Stakeholder bias, the bias implicit in the types of stakeholders involved (such as companies alone) is masked by the use of this word.

Synergy: This used to be a really impressive word that implied collaboration or integration of some sort. Now it’s sort of an empty word, where you can ignore the sentence it is in – especially if the sentence includes ‘Leverage’.

Stakeholder: A legal entity that is involved. The casual reader might think this refers to people – and sometimes it might include people. It is used in various ways in various dialects of Bureaucratese, but typically it means any legal entities involved – from a government organization to a non-government organization, to a business, to a actual human being.

When the word is used, make sure that who the stakeholder is is communicated, and why they are a stakeholder. The reason of why they are a stakeholder is typically associated with what sort of legal entity they are. A company will try to be more profitable, a government organization might wish to have more control over citizens, a non-profit might give you a nice warm and fuzzy intention underneath there is the need to get the next round of funding. Actual humans will typically be interested in opposing at least some of all of that. If there are no humans as stakeholders, members of society, then that tells you a lot.

Strategy: Typically a methodology of using bureaucracy to create more bureaucracy, typically an unconscious bait-and-switch while saying that the bureaucracy will be accomplishing other tasks. This almost always entails the need for Funding, as well as the creation of new Acronyms.

Did I miss something? Is there a word confusing you? Drop a comment and I’ll help you clear it up. 

Technology vs. Bureaucracy: a T&TEC Connection

ElectricityOne of the less fun things I get to do in dealing with land ownership is assisting people in getting electrical connections from the Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Commission (T&TEC).  The legitimate way of doing this is the land owner giving permission for the connection to the person getting the connection.

The why of people getting connections on land they do not (yet) own is fodder for another post on Land Laws in Trinidad and Tobago – but take it on faith that it’s done.

In 2008 I did this for someone. 9 years later, I’m doing it for someone else.

First, I’ll tell you how it happens. Then I’ll tell you everything that is wrong with it.

How it ‘Works’

The person getting the connection has to present evidence of land ownership or permission from the land owner. To do this, T&TEC wants to see a deed, and they want a letter from the landowner if the person does not own the land – as well as identification, which they diligently photocopy and probably place in a file somewhere marked, “Kill Trees”. Simple enough, you might think.

To make things easier, a landowner can send a photocopy of their ID and deed along with the person getting the connection.

That gets them ready to get an inspection done. The actual connection requires… all of the above again.

Since I’m not one to send someone running around with photocopies of my ID and deed, all of this means I get the joy of going to T&TEC in San Fernando, where they refer you to an orange desk which is now closer to a pink salmon (I asked a woman with matching nail polish what color her nails were). We sat there for an hour or so, watching frustrated T&TEC employees chained to keyboards of a system that was ‘giving trouble’, got to the desk and – fortunately – I had prepared everything for them so that in 15 minutes of photocopying and signatures, I could move on with my life. I don’t know how long the person getting connected stayed after.

How it Should Work.

A lot of people don’t know that T&TEC, circa 2010, mapped T&TEC poles all over Trinidad and Tobago and has them on a map. They can, with accuracy, tell you where they have their poles. And these are on a map of Trinidad and Tobago that had, or should still have, an up to date list of all the surveys registered in Trinidad and Tobago.

I say this because anyone with a deed can walk in and get someone else connected on someone else’s land. That’s clearly fraud, but it can happen by mistake when a land owner doesn’t know where their boundaries are. Therefore, the requirement of the deed is actually worthless without a survey that shows where the connection will be.

As I recall from years ago, I had to do this for a Water and Sewage Authority (WASA) connection around 2010. In my opinion, this is more in line with Land Law in Trinidad and Tobago, but I am no attorney and do not play one on the Internet.

The registered survey than be searched for if it were linked with the Ministry of Planning And Development, Town and Country Division systems. Then that would, if connected, be able to search the registry of Deeds at the Red House (which does not yet seem computerized).

If this were done, it would be apparent who legally owns the land, whose permission would be needed, etc. It would, of course, require the various databases to be kept up to date and interconnected.

And identification? Does no one see a flaw in accepting photocopies of identification not done on site? I could easily scan something in and alter it, printing it out. No, instead why not just have the T&TEC employee verify the identification is legitimate and enter the relevant information? Why are we killing trees in 2017 over this nonsense?

So, why hasn’t all of this been done? Why should this be hard to do? Why not remove the potential for error and corruption by appropriate use of technology?

There’s a question that should haunt every government administration since Independence. It’s a symptom of the larger problems, the elephants in the room that have ground the fine china into powder. Ministries not working together, a lack of a holistic vision, and a flood of ‘we like it so’.

I now return you to your regularly programmed bureaucracy.