Data mining, 1970s-style


Flashback a few decades to the days when phone records are still on paper, and this pilot fish works in a local phone company office that handles residential service.

"One day I took a call from an elderly customer who complained that his phone line was dead," says fish. "Normally this would be a repair call, but on calling repair he was told to call the phone company office to speak to us about it.

"I went to the files where the records of phone service were kept and found a disconnect order for the number, written up by a fellow rep named Fred who classified it as 'abandoned service.'"

Fish knows what that probably means: Many older homeowners in the area are selling their houses, which are then rented out by the new owners. But if for some reason the original homeowners don't have their phones disconnected, the new renters discover they have free phone service -- and when the bills go unpaid for a few months, the phone company writes them off as uncollectable and issues an "abandoned service" disconnect order.

When fish explains all this to the customer, the customer points out he's still living in his home. Fish promises to check into the matter and call him back at a neighbor's house.

But as soon as fish hangs up, he immediately gets another call from a different elderly caller who's also complaining about phone service being canceled. Fish checks the files again -- and finds another abandoned service disconnect order, once again with Fred's name on it.

"I went to Fred's desk and found a dozen other service reps crowded around him, demanding to know why their callers were disconnected too," fish says.

"It turns out that, like the rest of us reps, Fred issued increasingly frequent disconnect orders, and decided he needed to get ahead of the problem."

Fred's bright idea -- which he has discussed with no one else -- is to subscribe to the local newspapers to read the obituaries.

With the information in each obit, Fred has been trying to match the name and address of the deceased person against against a directory, and from there determine the phone number of the deceased.

From that, he created dozens of abandoned disconnect orders -- and at 5 p.m. the previous day, the orders were all issued. It never occurred to Fred that surviving family members might still live in the house and use the phone.

"And within the hour, we heard from 50 of them," groans fish. "We quickly escalated to management and got everyone's phone service back up within hours.

"And Fred was barred from issuing any disconnect unless two supervisors approved it in advance."

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