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?

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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.

The Property Tax of Trinidad and Tobago: Privacy

Property Taxes IconWith all the media coverage on the new (2017) Property Tax here in Trinidad and Tobago, it’s hard to pick one article out of all of them to get a cohesive idea of what it is. In fact, most of the articles I’ve seen have been devoid of facts and full of opinions – let’s just say that there is a communications issue.

Frankly, if the roll-out had been done with better communication, it would have been less the political football it has become.

I own property – a fair amount – and people know this, so they ask me about it. My land is agricultural, so the new tax is almost straightforward for me. Almost.

But who reads these forms? Who has access to these forms? With people being asked to take pictures of their property and give personal details, one of the main questions I have heard from more moderate voices revolves around privacy.

And there are privacy issues to consider with crime as endemic as the common cold, and allegations in foreign news:

A project that Cambridge Analytica carried out in Trinidad in 2013 brings all the elements in this story together. Just as Robert Mercer began his negotiations with SCL boss Alexander Nix about an acquisition, SCL was retained by several government ministers in Trinidad and Tobago. The brief involved developing a micro-targeting programme for the governing party of the time. And AggregateIQ – the same company involved in delivering Brexit for Vote Leave – was brought in to build the targeting platform.

David said: “The standard SCL/CA method is that you get a government contract from the ruling party. And this pays for the political work. So, it’s often some bullshit health project that’s just a cover for getting the minister re-elected. But in this case, our government contacts were with Trinidad’s national security council.”

The security work was to be the prize for the political work. Documents seen by the Observer show that this was a proposal to capture citizens’ browsing history en masse, recording phone conversations and applying natural language processing to the recorded voice data to construct a national police database, complete with scores for each citizen on their propensity to commit crime.

“The plan put to the minister was Minority Report. It was pre-crime…

The sole local article I saw on that was hereI admit I don’t read the local newspapers too much, so I might have missed a few other articles. 

Now, being sensible and intelligent, you’ll ask me how this all ties in to the question of privacy as related to the property tax information being voluntarily sent in. That quote isn’t about the reported 105 warrants to intercept communications with 1 arrest (Less than 1% success if you bother with math). We’re talking about other stuff.

We all know that there are issues with corruption – such as the open secret of passing bribes in the Licensing Office. Anyone who lives in Trinidad and Tobago knows that there is rampant corruption in government – which, to my understanding, happens to be the largest employer in the country. And if they can’t even pay their people, when there are meetings about not purchasing toilet paper, you have a security risk. You have a privacy risk.

The privacy is a legitimate concern. Who has access to this information? How will it be used in other ways? Who is speaking to the populace being comfortable about that?

Certainly, I understand that the government needs to build it’s data – the log books of old would take decades to computerize, and I do applaud the genius of crowd-sourcing from the populace… but… privacy.

I’m of low confidence.

And that’s the press of this entry.

A little ad lib below.

Some Personal Notes On The Property Tax.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of a property tax where one can forfeit property if one doesn’t pay it for 5 years. It’s a de facto tenancy to the State at that point, and I think that’s wrong. People pay stamp duty when they purchase, and many other taxes are levied.
However.
I also don’t like speed limits as they are in Trinidad and Tobago, but if I break them I get a ticket, so I obey them. I don’t agree to a lot of silly laws, but I also understand that a society of laws is necessary. I don’t have to like them.
I bring this up because a lot of people are saying that people shouldn’t submit their forms, particularly in grassroots meetings. It’s a matter of Civil Disobedience, I suppose, and I doubt that few people who are considering it know the story of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience – about how he didn’t believe in the Church tax, and how he was thrown in jail. What many people tend to overlook is that he only got out of jail because someone came by and paid his Church tax for him.
I will not advise anyone to take this course of action. If the person or people advising you to do this will pay the $500 fine you’ll get for not submitting… well, you decide. It is the Law.