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IT's biggest project failures -- and what we can learn from them

By Jake Widman
October 9, 2008 12:00 PM ET

The FBI did use some of what it learned from the VCF disaster in its current Sentinel project. Sentinel, now scheduled for completion in 2012, should do what VCF was supposed to do using off-the-shelf, Web-based software.

Homeland Security's virtual fence

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is bolstering the U.S. Border Patrol with a network of radar, satellites, sensors and communication links -- what's commonly referred to as a "virtual fence." In September 2006, a contract for this Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet, not to be confused with Skynet) was awarded to Boeing, which was given $20 million to construct a 28-mile pilot section along the Arizona-Mexico border.

But early this year, Congress learned that the pilot project was being delayed because users had been excluded from the process and the complexity of the project had been underestimated. (Sound familiar?) In February 2008, the Government Accountability Office reported that the radar meant to detect aliens coming across the border could be set off by rain and other weather, and the cameras mean to zoom in on subjects sent back images of uselessly low resolution for objects beyond 3.1 miles. Also, the pilot's communications system interfered with local residents' WiFi networks -- not good PR.

In April, DHS announced that the surveillance towers of the pilot fence did not meet the Border Patrol's goals and were being replaced -- a story picked up by the Associated Press and widely reported in the mainstream media. But the story behind the story is less clear. The DHS and Boeing maintain the original towers were only temporary installations for demonstration purposes. Even so, the project is already experiencing delays and cost overruns, and in April, SBInet program manager Kirk Evans resigned, citing lack of a system design as just one specific concern. Not an auspicious beginning.

Census Bureau's handheld units

Back in 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau made a plan to use 500,000 handheld devices -- purchased from Harris Corp. under a $600 million contract -- to help automate the 2010 census. Now, though, the cost has more than doubled, and their use is going to be curtailed in 2010 -- but the Census Bureau is moving ahead with the project anyway.

During a rehearsal for the census conducted in the fall of 2007, according to the GAO, field staff found that the handheld devices froze or failed to retrieve mapping coordinates (see Hard questions needed to save projects for details). Furthermore, multiple devices had the same identification number, which meant they would overwrite one another's data.

After the rehearsal, a representative of Mitre Corp., which advises the bureau on IT matters, brought notes to a meeting with the bureau's representative that read, "It is not clear that the system will meet Census' operational needs and quality goals. The final cost is unpredictable. Immediate, significant changes are required to rescue the program. However, the risks are so large considering the available time that we recommend immediate development of contingency plans to revert to paper operations."

There you have it, a true list of IT Ig Nobels: handheld computers that don't work as well as pencil and paper, new systems that are slower and less capable than the old ones they're meant to replace. Perhaps the overarching lesson is one that project managers should have learned at their mothers' knees: Don't bite off more than you can chew.

No Prize for IT

Information technology has rarely won an Ig Nobel award in the 18 years the prizes have been doled out by the Improbable Research organization.

Should we take the snub personally?

Marc Abrahams, the editor of Improbable Research, the organization's blog, says he thinks IT's relative absence is simply because the field is younger than other disciplines. "Certainly IT offers the same level of absurdity as other areas of research," he says comfortingly.

He points out that Murphy's Law, whose three "inventors" (John Paul Stapp, Edward A. Murphy, Jr. and George Nichols,) were honored with an Ig Nobel in 2003, sprang from an IT-like project in the late 1940s. Murphy was an electrical engineer who was brought in to help the Air Force figure out why safety tests they were conducting weren't producing any results. Murphy discovered that the electronic monitoring systems had been installed "backwards and upside down," according to Abrahams, which discovery caused him to mutter the first version of the law that bears his name.

Other Ig Nobels drawn from the world of technology include:

2001: John Keogh of Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia, won in the Technology category for patenting the wheel; he shared the award with the Australian Patent Office, which granted him Innovation Patent #2001100012 (pdf) for a "circular transportation facilitation device."

2000: Chris Niswander of Tucson, Ariz., won a Computer Science Ig Nobel for his development of PawSense, software that can tell when a cat is walking across your keyboard and make a sound to scare it off.

1997: Sanford Wallace -- yes, that Sanford Wallace -- of Cyber Promotions takes the Communications Ig Nobel for being the Spam King.

The Ig Nobels, it must be remembered, aren't into value judgments.

San Francisco-based Widman is a frequent contributor to Computerworld.

Read more about Project Management in Computerworld's Project Management Topic Center.

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