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Living with error

An interesting week. My first hybrid Committee meeting. I was physically present. Others dialled in by video link. Seemed to work just fine.

The legislative machinery of Parliament has now also gone hybrid. I was able to contribute remotely to a couple of the debates on the Agriculture Bill. This was a vital step to ensure that we can continue to support our farmers as the Brexit transition period comes to an end. It provides the foundations upon which we can now start to work with industry and other stakeholders to build a new support mechanism for 2025 and beyond.

There was a bit of faffing about during some of the votes. While it was being described as technical problems, it seemed to me to more like human ones. There is one MSP, no names, no pack drill, who just cannot get their mind around anything faintly techie.

Given that person's previous professional life, in an area heavily dependent on leading-edge technology, I am beginning to wonder if they just are scunnered at the end of their Parliamentary career at having to learn a new skill or two.

When was involved in developing computer systems, we were always very aware that the mindset needed to write computer code, was somewhat removed from that of a lay-person. Because we could understand what a system was trying to do, we could all too easily miss things that could make it difficult to use by others. So we used to pay neighbouring Napier University to do an HCI (Human-Computer Interface) review of our major new systems. It was surprising the things, often quite simple issues, that escaped our notice.

I used to own a share in a French-built light aircraft. One of the interfaces that they sought to make very accessible was a row of buttons between the front seats. To avoid their customers having to learn French, they each had a symbol to indicate its function. But that made things worse than if it had been a word in a foreign tongue.

For example, two of the buttons were for switching on the landing light and for the taxi light. The former was used when on final approach, that means from two nautical miles from landing, with the purpose of making it easier for the tower and other aircraft to see you. The other enabled a light to see where you were going when taxiing on the ground in the dark.

But the symbols were so similar as to merely create confusion. We had to have a hand-written strip of thin cardboard sellotaped next the buttons with words written on them. A techie was trying to be helpful but actually created confusion. A duff HCI.

On one memorable occasion, us computer techies were involved in a live pre-launch test of our cash dispenser system. We had about 1,000 people working in the computer centre about forty years ago. We were all encouraged to apply for a "Keycard" which could be used to facilitate the drawing of cash from an Autoteller. A machine was to open inside our facility for a one hour test using real cash for the first time.

Our admin manager and a couple of staff stood beside the device and recorded how much money each of us withdrew. We displayed our cash to verify our transaction. A manual entry was added to a list on a clipboard. At 1300 hours the machine was closed down. The tally of cash withdrawn was totted up. Inside the box a printer also recorded the transactions. It matched. The central system showed the same amount. Smiles all round.

These machines could contain up to £40,000. The back was opened and the cartridges withdrawn. The clerical staff sat down to count the remaining money in the cartridges from our ATM. Fewer smiles; there was £2,000 missing.

A lot of counting, checking, head-scratching over the next five hours. There was still a cash shortfall.

Finally, it was decided that we needed to fess-up to the bank branch which had filled the cartridges with cash. Only to discover at six p.m. that they had found themselves at the end of the business day with £2,000 more than their books showed that they should have had. They left to go home somewhat earlier as a cash overage was a matter of only modest concern. A penny short would have meant being there all night. But too much; no.

These things are always a matter of scale.

I remember on another occasion visiting our sterling dealing room in London. It was essentially a paper-based operation. Automation was being contemplated. Commercial banks send and receive money from each other during the business day. Each has an account at the Bank of England in which the transactions are recorded and whose balance reflected the funds available to each bank.

The job of the dealing room was to make sure that we were not overdrawn on our account when the trading day ended at 3 o'clock.

If we looked like being so, we would "deal" to borrow money from another bank that had more in its account than they needed. Just overnight, to keep the books straight. Or we might be the one doing the lending.
Or we could run an overdraft overnight on our account at Bank of England. But the interest rate would be one and half times the highest rate that prevailed at any time during the day. On the day of my visit, the annual rate for "overnight" money varied between eight and three hundred per cent. So no overdrafts, please!

The dealers just jotted their deals down in a ledger, in pencil.

At the end of this day the totals did not balance. But its being only £50 million adrift, they took me to the pub on the basis that it would sort itself out tomorrow.

How tolerant we are of error is a matter of context as well as scale.

In Parliament this week, as we gained confidence in our online voting system, we clicked nicely along through multiple votes. But even a single error in voting here could make or break a piece of law. So our tolerance of error in this context is nil.

But online voting means we no longer need to be physically present. I had contributed to the debate via video carried over the internet. For voting, we were distributed right across Scotland. This can open up Parliament for a wider range of people. Family and caring duties can more easily be woven into peoples' lives.

In the Parliamentary session from 2007, the Government had 47 members and the opposition had 81. On the majority of occasions, I had ministerial visits to foreign destinations cancelled by the whips, sometimes at 36 hours notice, just so that I could be present to vote at 5 p.m.

A mechanical task which would take five minutes, disrupting sometimes months of work.

So our new technology will allow members, Government and opposition, greater opportunities to participate in the real world outside Holyrood.

That cannot be a bad thing can it?


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