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Imagine every mistake you can make with a new software rollout...

...and then witness how Oakland's court system managed them all

There is not a sysadmin in the world who has not had to deal with a botched software rollout; for most, it is a coming-of-age experience.

But few are likely to have made quite as many mistakes as the people behind the Alameda court system's new software. They have managed a rollout so inept that it should serve as a case study for what not to do for future generations.

Of course, most disastrous rollouts tend to be dealt with internally, shared only occasionally as war stories with other admins. Not so the Odyssey system, for the simple reason that it caused people to be wrongly arrested, saw drug offenders labeled as sex offenders, and introduced delays that literally saw people spend more time in jail as a result.

How did it happen? See if this sounds familiar:

  • A management rush, complete with budget.
  • A software company that seduced the higher-ups on how great the system was.
  • Wide-open configuration with a large number of people given input.
  • Inadequate consultation with the people using the current system.
  • Lack of training for those expected to use the new system.
  • A bureaucracy that won't admit failure.

The old system used by Alameda County in California – which covers the east side of the San Francisco Bay Area, including the island of Alameda but most significantly Oakland – was 40 years old, largely based on paper, and needed updating or replacing.

Some bright spark thought it would be a great idea to have a single system working across the whole of California and its 50+ courts. One miserable $500m failure later, and Texas-based Tyler Technologies saw an opportunity to fill the vacuum with its Odyssey system.

Money, money, money

It turned out during a postmortem of that failure that many local courts were stockpiling cash. And that, naturally enough, led to the state legislature deciding it would rather have the money. So it passed a law that placed limits on the money courts could set aside, complete with a requirement to give all the current reserves back to the state.

The courts accepted the logic of this approach but took the opportunity to enact clear, careful planning decisions before returning all the money without so much as a whisper of complaint.

No, of course they didn't: they went on a massive spending splurge in an effort to allocate every last cent so the money-grubbers in Sacramento wouldn't get a thing. And Odyssey was there with its arms wide open. Alameda County spent $4.5m on the system.

"It's truly the Wild West here in California," one anonymous software executive told the Courthouse News Service, "it's a land grab."

Not that the software is inherently bad. It is very capable and expandable. It is highly configurable. It is secure. And it is designed precisely with court systems in mind. But the rollout... well, that's where the system's flexibility became less an asset and more an enormous liability.

It didn't take long for the problems to start. According to one user of the system, interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle: "With the old system, it took maybe one or two clicks to complete a process. Now it takes 25..."

Yes, that opportunity to add dropdown boxes resulted in a user interface so convoluted that – guess what? – people stopped using it. Court clerks were neither sufficiently consulted nor were they adequately trained on the system, and so they stopped entering the data in the actual courtroom and simply passed the files down the chain for others to input.

Incredible as it may seem, the gap in time and handing off of a specialist task to general office workers did not produce the best results. Public defender Brendon Woods decided to go public with his frustrations with the system and revealed that the system has created a backlog of 12,000 files; a number that is growing by 300 each day.

The system was not optimized, so everyday inputs are not given priority over far less frequent data entry needs. The result? A slow input system in a fast-moving ecosystem. The backlog added pressure and – guess what? – the pressure led to mistakes.

Knock-on impacts

And those mistakes impacted lives. A number of arrest warrants were issued because the judges' orders to vacate them were not input in time. The wrong charges were input. In some cases people were given felony convictions rather than misdemeanors: a situation that has far-reaching impacts on someone's life. People convicted of felonies often find it difficult to get jobs and are treated differently by law in many states.

Woods told the Chronicle he also knew of a situation where two drug defendants were tagged as sex offenders. In California, that means your home address and the fact you are a sex offender is made publicly available. And you are required to inform the authorities of your movements.

The East Bay Times reported that sheriff's deputies are now going through records manually because their trust in the system has collapsed. In some cases, inmates themselves have informed sheriff's deputies that their release date had already passed.

And so, those using the system are doing what every line manager since the dawn of time has asked management to do when they botch a software rollout: take it offline until the bugs are sorted out.

And you'll never guess what the response has been. Yep – "no."

The same guy that green-lighted the Odyssey system in the first place back in 2013 – Robert Oyung, who was then the Chief Information Officer for Santa Clara – is now the CIO for the Judicial Council of California.

At a Judicial Council Technology Committee meeting earlier this month, Oyung argued that it was inevitable that there would be "growing pains" with the new system. "I think if people's expectations are set appropriately – that there will be gaps and they're not going to get exactly what they had before – I think that people can go in with open eyes," he said.

He went on: "There definitely will be gaps in a functionality that a court has experienced over the past 10 or 15 years compared to the new product ... I think that we can work together as a community and work very closely with Tyler to resolve those issues."

And so the case study continues to grow. ®

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