Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Dangerous reliance on flawed computer databases

Dumb cops treat them as an oracle when they should be treated as being no more reliable than any other kind of evidence

We humans have a persistent fear that the machines we endow with artificial intelligence will one day turn against us. Of course, deep down we know such concerns are irrational. Life is much easier if we accept that even though it might have burnt the bread, the toaster is basically on our side and doing its best.

Our natural instincts dulled, we let our guard down. And so, if you truly fear technology, expect to be dismissed as a Luddite or worse. I know all this, and yet I truly fear technology. Specifically, I fear how we rely on it; how we outsource our duty of care to computers that in fact rely on us to do their work properly.

When police and other law enforcement agencies, which have the power to deprive us of our liberty, place absolute trust in imperfect systems, the resulting injustice can be terrible and very difficult to remedy.

The Herald recently reported that a long-running glitch in the NSW government computer system is causing young people to be arrested and detained for breaching non-existent or expired bail conditions. Often these people must wait until they are brought before a court before they are released.

For more than three years, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, the Public Interest Law Clearing House and Legal Aid NSW have been trying to resolve this. But still the cases have mounted up, leading to the repeated injustice of wrongful detention and a government compensation bill that runs into millions of dollars.

Even when a detained youth has tried to explain the true situation - in one case, his mother offered to fax to the police court documents containing the correct information - the authorities have doggedly relied on the police IT system. By presuming their technology to be infallible, these errors have caused a significant injustice.

An IT system relies on people to input the data. But from time to time, we fallible humans enter the information wrongly; sometimes it doesn't go in at all. While it's convenient to assume the computer is always right, that assumption should never prevail over clear evidence to the contrary.

There is also another, more subtle problem with IT systems. Their design constrains our actions - often more effectively than any law ever could. This principle does not just apply to IT, but to other forms of design as well. Take, for example, road safety. If the government wants to limit drivers' speed on a suburban road to 40km/h, the conventional method would be to impose a speed limit. If policed rigorously, this will probably improve compliance, but many people would continue to speed.

A far more effective (and cheaper) solution is to change the design of the road: to build speed humps, roundabouts and so on. This can create total compliance because you physically can't drive over the speed limit.

The same is true in IT systems. This can be a good thing: a well-designed system will ensure that important considerations are not forgotten by public servants who are often busy and under pressure.

However, it also means your options can be limited by the choices made by the government's computer programmer. You can be prevented from doing something, not because the law prohibits it, but because there is no such option in the drop-down menu.

The tragic case of David Iredale, the young bushwalker who died in the Blue Mountains in 2006, is a case in point. When he realised he was lost and in trouble, David called the ambulance service from his mobile phone and was repeatedly asked by the operator to provide a street address. Being in the middle of the bush, he could not. Nevertheless, the operator stuck to the system as designed.

The inquest into David's death disclosed that the ambulance service's call-response system required a street address. The absurdity of requiring such information in all circumstances is manifest. Such situations are more common when we rely on rigid IT systems that do not allow for situations outside of those predicted by the original computer programmers.

Of course, the solution to these problems is not to abandon technology. Instead, we need to be more realistic about the strengths and limitations of the systems we rely on, and to ensure that they are carefully monitored so as not to induce injustice.


Chaotic NSW government hospitals again

Hospital beds could be closed for up to three months and surgery cut as the war between angry nurses and the State Government intensifies. The first salvo was fired yesterday with the closure of 30 Wollongong Hospital beds. More beds are expected to be closed as RPA and Westmead in Sydney follow.

Nurses are refusing to back down from their demand for better staffing, with hundreds of beds expected to be closed in coming weeks and one in four surgeries cancelled.

As the first closures were rolled out, Health Minister Carmel Tebbutt said she was unwilling to bow to demands.

Patients will be caught up in the confrontation. Those with less urgent problems now face delays for treatment.

And in a move aimed to hurt the Government at the March poll, the Nurses Association said it would no longer support the Labor Party.

Emergency departments, intensive care units, oncology and maternity will not be affected by the bed closures.

Nurses want ratios increased to one nurse to every four patients - but the Government said that would mean an extra 6000 nurses.


The Queensland ambulance service finally gets its act together

Now for Victoria

Better, faster ambulance crews helped Queensland achieve its lowest road toll last year since accurate records began in 1952.

Authorities late last week encouraged the state to go even lower this year than the 247 road deaths recorded in 2010.

The latest ambulance service figures reveal paramedics went to more than 14,000 crashes last year. And they reveal paramedics got to half of all jobs within 8.1min and to 90 per cent of all jobs within 16.5min.

"They're good figures," Queensland Ambulance Service commissioner David Melville said. "We're getting quicker, and people are clinically more able than they were in the past. And it's a great thing we went to 4.24 per cent less crashes in the first 11 months of last year."

Police last week lauded the work of paramedics on the roadside as one of several reasons for keeping the toll to 247 – 84 fewer than in 2009.

And while the ambulance chief yesterday praised police for their major role in preventing more tragedies, he said QAS decisions to improve paramedic training and allow drugs like ketamine to be used on the roadside, were bearing fruit. "There's been a very very strong effort to improve the skills of our paramedics through training," he said.

On average, an ambulance is called out every 42 seconds in Queensland. Last year, about 1000 active ambulances responded to 750,000 jobs.

Flooded communities and stranded motorists have kept paramedics busy the past two weeks. Many Brisbane crews have had to fly to isolated parts of the state and help local crews in recovery efforts. Some based in regional centres have been hit by the floods themselves.


Detention centres for illegals busting out all over Australia

CHRISTMAS Island is fast becoming the alternative place of detention for boatpeople. The number of boatpeople on the mainland now easily outnumbers those on the Indian Ocean island excised in 2002 for the purpose of processing asylum-seekers.

There are 3469 boatpeople or "irregular maritime arrivals" in immigration detention on the Australian mainland compared with 2811 on Christmas Island, according to Immigration Department figures compiled on the evening of December 30.

Labor moved to overturn the Howard government practice of offshore processing in September 2009, when then immigration minister Chris Evans authorised the transfer of 10 Afghan youths from Christmas Island to the Melbourne Immigration Detention Centre.

An Immigration spokesman said at the time the decision to allow the boys to travel to the mainland with their paid carers would give them access to a range of classes and recreational activities. "This move will enable the department to finalise their cases and ensure support to this particularly vulnerable group," he said.

Within months, large numbers of asylum-seekers were being transferred to mainland detention because crowding on Christmas Island was becoming unmanageable. Initially, men were sent to high-security detention centres at Villawood, in Sydney's western suburbs, and in Darwin.

In June last year, families were sent to a refurbished miners' camp in the West Australian town of Leonora, where the shire and local business owners welcomed the economic boost.

There are now detention centres or facilities for boatpeople in every mainland state, including at the air bases at Curtin in the far north Kimberley of Western Australia and in Scherger near Weipa in Queensland's far north.

So far, the decision has done little to ease crowding on Christmas Island, where tents -- supposed to be a temporary measure -- are still in use.

Residents on Christmas Island have long complained of rising rents and food prices caused by crowding outside the detention centre. The influx of government workers and contractors who work on a fly-in, fly-out basis has been good for businesses but difficult for residents on relatively modest incomes.

Christmas Island shire president Gordon Thomson lobbied Labor for extra infrastructure to cope with the crowding. As a result, the island's sewerage and water systems are being upgraded and extra housing is planned. Residents hope pressure will ease when the federal government moves about 1500 men from Christmas Island to an old army barracks in the West Australian wheatbelt town of Northam.


1 comment:

Paul said...

Patient ratios are not the panacea NSW Nurses are hingeing their campaign on. Sometimes 1 to 6 or even 1 to 8 is fine, other times 1 to 1 or 1 to 2 is needed. The problem is flexibility of staffing to deal with peaks and troughs without having to argue with managers who have their own hands tied by their managers when it comes to staffing levels.