The Census: a Failure of National Humility

Categories Scratched

Let the Australian census debacle be our lesson about arrogance rather than technology.

Last night, you may have heard, the Australian Bureau of Statistics took the census offline after several malicious denial of service (DoS) attacks.

This should have been expected. Its possibility should have been discussed by the ABS and the government in the lead-up to the census.

The possibility of a kind of failure should have been made apparent at all stages. Instead, however, everyone publicly backed themselves.

Everything we do in technology is a trial of some kind. We base entire project methodologies around the idea of failure. (Look at the Agile and Lean concepts.) It is ridiculous to mix this level of expected and controlled whoopsies with the arrogance of a government prioritising being correct over being careful.

Government has become more about not admitting mistakes than actually governing.

The Schadenfreude you see expressed by libertarians on social media this morning is not a response to technology failing as much as it is the comeuppance of an arrogant government.

Last night the Prime Minister tweeted that he successfully completed the census at his house. Then he offered no further tweets about the problems other people were having.

He offered no comment about the unfortunate people struggling in ABS server rooms or about how great it was to attempt something so bold as a predominantly online census.

Of course he couldn’t do that because we live in a culture where mistakes are treated with excuses rather than ownership and compassion.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda

Imagine a different scenario: the government publicly treated the online census with caution. In this alteraverse they referred to the project as a “trial” and encouraged people to use it first and, if it failed, to swap to the paper form they were provided.

Maybe we could have supported them, in this other reality, if they had announced a plan to do something inventive and obviously for the public good with unused offline survey booklets:

The different ministries worked together and came up with a plan that conservationists, economists and social service workers universally applauded. The will turn unused census booklets into insulation or construction materials for makeshift housing for our increasing homeless population.

That’s not a real quote from anywhere. It’s a made up alternative universe; a dream; a fantasy.

Snap back to reality

Last night was a failure of our collective attitude towards big projects. We are so scared of being wrong that we would rather see everything come crashing down and do a piss-bolt out of the scene than preempt the possibility of things failing with public contingencies.

This morning’s news overflows with experts saying it was never going to work. That doesn’t help. What would those experts have done if it did work? Would they announce it as a triumph, hooking their trailer onto that passing star? Would they have stayed quiet? I doubt we’d see announcements from them saying they didn’t think it was possible.

We can’t keep dealing with technology issues in terms of absolutes. It does nothing but breed lack of confidence in our leaders and, more importantly, the technology to grow our reputation on an international competitive stage.

Australia: The Cautiously Optimistic Country

We need to get used to saying: “We’re not sure if this will work but we’re going to give it a go. And, by the way, this is the plan we have in place if it doesn’t work.”

Because a clever country plans. We have to stop saying we’re a clever country, stop hoping we’re a lucky country, and actually do the things we constantly pat ourselves on the back for. We need to encourage attitudes of planning, long-term research and revisiting premises.

We need to look beyond tomorrow’s headlines and next week’s opinion polls and beyond the interest of the power-hungry individuals who got us into this mess. They don’t care about us. We should stop giving them the power to hold us back. We’re better than this.

Australia and the Death Penalty

Categories Scratched

Today’s report is an important reminder that the AFP must not expose people to the risk of the death penalty. Evidence shows that the AFP is putting around 370 people a year at risk of execution, more than 95% of which are for drug cases.

Emily Howie quoted in “Parliamentary committee delivers blueprint for Australia’s global leadership to abolish the death penalty”, Human Rights Law Centre

It’s exciting to see some actual movement in this area.

Just over a year since the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia, and a parliamentary report talks about, not just how it could have been avoided, but how it is our duty to try to stop the death penalty around the world.

I’m very proud of all the people I know who have been a part of this battle. This is a tiny step. Recommendations are not the same as taking action.

Now you have something concrete and meaningful to speak to your local member and candidates about over the next few weeks.

The entire report is available at the Parliament House of Australia website.

This week on ‘This Australian Life’

Categories Scratched, Thoughts

I grew up in Australia in the late seventies and early eighties, so it was natural for me to think that someone else’s culture was more valid than mine: The TV shows we saw were mostly imported; The local content was news or soap or procedural cop dramas; Australian children’s television was always solid, but as kids we were already given the sense that things that were made for us were of less consequence than things created for adults; And shows for adults that had a sense of quality came from the US and UK.

Is that how you remember it? It’s definitely the way we, as a culture, talk about it—especially when we have the inevitable "Why can’t we produce good comedies" discussion we love to have.

To believe that requires excluding the comedies like Auntie Jack, which led to Norman Gunston, without which we would have never had Let the Blood Run Free or The Games.

There were also the Kennedy-Miller mini-series, the way for which was paved by Crawfords productions, which eventually led to Simpson-Le Mesurier productions and the excellent Good Guys Bad Guys in the early nineties.

Australia is a giant country with a relatively small population. Our two most populous cities (only the second smallest distance between two capital cities in Australia), are almost as far apart as Paris and Berlin. We feel isolated from each other as well as the rest of the world, and as a result there is an insecurity in our actions.

Recently a friend told me he wanted to start a podcast festival in Melbourne. His intention was to invite Marc Maron and John Hodgman, and their presence would encourage other big names to come.

He never mentioned an Australian podcast he would like to invite.

So, why do we look externally for validation?

When I went to my first Webstock conference (realistically one of the best-run events I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending), I was disappointed that a New Zealand-run event didn’t have any antipodean speakers.

I thought about this for a bit. Should we blame the organisers? (They are lovely people and work very hard.) Maybe they had evidence to show that local people weren’t a big enough draw card. That’s definitely what other attendees had suggested to me.

If this is what attendees think, based on just attendee-to-attendee discussions, then it’s probably true enough market research.

But this problem doesn’t happen with other countries or cultures. The aforementioned US and UK both host plenty of web-design conferences that draw huge crowds.

Do we just accept out cultural cringe and live with it, or do we fight against it?

This is a design problem. This is a problem of getting people to accept something they unconsciously reject. Its a problem of changing minds and behaviour.

But is it a problem worth solving? What are the costs associated with building antipodean pride?

There is a very real possibility that we fear realising our already perceived irrelevance—that, despite everything we have already given the world (wifi, bionic ear, ova freezing techniques), we still never think we’ll be listened to when we talk. And there’s nothing worse than an irrelevant body pretending it has validity. How embarrassing!

There is, however, the contrary position. If we are supportive of our own work and push ourselves to produce better products, then maybe it won’t matter what others think. Maybe we will develop a confidence to be content with our own attention.

This is not about local design for local people. It’s about holding our own work to an international standard, supporting it when it reaches that level and encouraging efforts to surpass it.

We can only do that one step at a time. It’s going to be tough, too, but relevance is demanded, not requested, and that takes grit.

This post was originally published in the Floate Design Partners blog