Tuesday, 22 February 2011

How to save Money!

fbb's suggestion to H M Government
Throw away your computer systems. 

In connection with various bits of not-very-gainful employment, fbb receives copies of bus service registrations from Hampshire County Council.
For the uninitiated, the "registration" is the legal document submitted to the Traffic Commissioners and containing details of your bus service proposals or alterations.
 In the "good old days" the Commissioners held public enquiries where anyone could put forward an objection to the proposals.   This was, in effect, a device to prevent wasteful competition as the incumbent operator could object on the grounds that the incoming service was "unnecessary".   What a good idea!  But since deregulation in 1986 the Traffic Commissioners are little more than an expensive filing cabinet.

Now, of course, as in all things trendy and modern, you may submit your registration on-line.

 "This is the report on implementing the paperless office."

fbb has been looking at a recent registration he received in connection with his minimalist employment.  Whereas the paper document consisted of approx four pages, the on-line version often works out at a minimum of three times that - and you begin with a contents list.
This list doesn't seem to bear much relationship to what the contents actually are, as we shall see in due course.   Then follows basic details of what it is you are registering:-
 
Most of this glurp is repeated two or three times in other boxes on other pages - but in a slightly  different form.   Also note that the period of operation of this particular "event" is from 3rd April to 3rd April.   Keep that snippet in mind!
fbb has no idea what this is for or what it means.    And there follows, in this case, THREE pages listing every stop served.
Note the lengthy stop reference number on the left - 12 digits.   12 digits is space enough for one less than 1000 billion stops - 999,999,999,999 to be precise.   Ready for expansion or information overkill?   What's wrong with an eight figure ordnance survey grid reference - they're needed anyway for journey planner technology?    But that's what happens when you put things in the hands of computer geeks - anything to add complexity.
Another mystery.   What is so important between Andover and Marlborough that it needs listing EIGHT times?
And it's good to know that the document was created, modified AND new; all on the same day.  I am sure that such information is really, really helpful.   Sadly we are not told what the compiler of the submission had for breakfast, but it's only a matter of time: Nor do we know his mother's maiden name - another worrying omission from the form.

And there's more...

For a new service, the registration also needs to record any turning manoeuvres, type of vehicle (bus? skateboard? jump jet?) and include a detailed map and a full timetable.   fbb has received copies of registrations 25 pages in length.

Incidentally, the registration here reviewed is to CANCEL a service!  Showing a real concern for economy of time and money, it only took SEVEN pages of "stuff" to register this cancellation.  [and, if the document is correct, which it probably isn't, to cancel it for one day, namely 3rd April.]

Now, although this is all for electronic registration, there are still numerous occasions when a paper copy is useful or even necessary.  Even if paper could be avoided, some faceless minion has to input all this stuff - and presumably check it and input it again when the infuriating confuser (sic!) belches loudly and refuses to accept it.
So, Department of Transport / H M Government / Mr Cleggeron:- throw away your computers, buy a nice tin filing cabinet for the registrations and go back to one (for cancellation) and four (for new or revised services) sheets of this amazing and technologically advanced stuff called "paper".   You could also probably delete this duty from the onerous responsibilities of the Commissioners.  Hurrah! there goes another piece of QUANGO.

Whoops, sorry Mr Computer; we forgot the essential bit:-
What a relief!
fbb, and the whole world, can sleep soundly in their beds tonight.   Zzzzzzzz.

  Due next, fbb's 100th  blog : Friday 25th February.
Memories of an Industry "Icon"

2 comments:

  1. I can understand your thinking, but I don't think your suggestion will bring any very significant savings for the government. Electro-magnetic data storage is cheap, but people are expensive - or at least, the use of their time is expensive. Additionally, from my experience of working in IT over the last 20 years, most users, when specifying new computer systems, tend to underestimate the number and size of fields required in their databases - amongst other things. The result - after a short period of use, the system has to be upgraded and enlarged with sometimes significant modifications. Yet, if that 'scope for expansion' had been built into the system when it was setup, the additional cost new would have been minimal compared to the cost of the later modifications - which, of course, use skilled people's expensive time. Therefore, it makes sense to 'over-specify' at the beginning, as there is a high probability that the initial excess capacity will be used later, and, if not, it is not expensive.

    As far as the stop reference numbers are concerned, yes, the code does seem long - but then the unique code for a bank account usually has 14 digits (sort code and account number in combination), which also potentially gives scope for far more accounts than would ever be required. However, parts of the code indicate specific aspects of the account - some are obvious, but there may be more that are known only to the banks. These may be used by the banks' computer systems - and the same may apply to the bus stop reference numbers. I am also not sure if the Ordnance Survey 8 digit grid reference would be sufficiently exact to identify individual stops - presumably the stops in each direction have separate reference numbers, even if they are opposite each other on different sides of the road? The OS grid references can have more digits, so that version may be satisfactory, and such a link would make sense. However, it may already be in the database table, but simply not presented on the information you receive.

    The paperless office - yes, I have to agree that has been a long time coming; and with early computer systems, there was a lot of data stored that was not previously available, but users didn't seem to have the confidence to trust the electronic data storage systems, so they tended to print everything out - with the frequent result of the exact opposite of the paperless office.

    There is perhaps a wider question of whether the collection of so much data is really necessary or desirable, or indeed, whether any sensible use is made of the data? If HCC (or any other authority, for that matter) uses the data to produce detailed timetables and maps of the services, then it probably is worthwhile - and it might even save the operator some of their publicity costs.

    You mention that the example in question is a cancellation, so I wonder if some of the fields were 'auto-filled' from the registration data already held for the service? If the system is well-designed, it should enable this to save work. However, if the system was really well designed, it would also probably be able to identify duplicated data, and not display it where that is unnecessary - in that respect, the system does seem rather poor. Unfortunately, it will require a skilled technician's time to change, and that may cost more than it saves - we're back to square one, I'm afraid!

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  2. As someone who is familiar with this new style, I can comfirm that much of the detail in the PDF is automatically lifted from the underlying data and doesn't need re-entry. In the case of a cancellation, the system requires that you identify what is being cancelled: therefore, the application to cancel needs to be linked to the previous application for the same registration, which the PDF export then faithfully reports in full, along with the important fact that the new application is actually to delete all these old details. However, it is possible to suppress all this unnecessary waffle when the PDF is produced, but you may not know that the application is a cancellation before running off the full report!

    The actual registration is in the form of a electronic data file which can be processed by software through the VOSA acceptance and publication process; it can also feed Traveline databases, on-street timetable displays, real-time information, or even printed leaflets, without the need to re-enter routes and times. The PDF facility is a backup to all this in the absence of such software, but it is not completely foolproof, as this example shows. It tends to show everything which may, or may not, be relevant, and leaves the reader to decide what is and isn't. And there is more in the file which the PDF doesn't show, including all the grid references.

    Every bus stop in the country has a reference code- but other than the first four digits, which indicate the local authority location, the remainder is up to that authority to decide. Without knowing the particular stops listed, I can't say whether individual digits identify particular towns, districts, parishes, or whatever criteria was deemed important to the person who allocated these numbers. Perhaps they are just allowing for future expansion. In my local area, the stop codes have only nine digits, so it can vary from place to place.

    And, finally, while this new system does appear to be slightly cumbersome in places, it does have considerable benefits for those on the front line. It may just take some time to work through some of the initial hurdles.

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