Jamaica Used "Why Re-invent the Wheel" Ingenuity to Avoid Y2K Glitches

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Although this post does not report a glitch, it showcases the ingenuity and resourcefulness that we are capable of when faced by an overwhleming crisis, such as Y2K. This human response aspect is very definitely a part of the Y2K "story". Into the "Benefits from Y2K Prep" category for this story.



In Jamaica, Y2K Without a Glitch

Adopting Others' Fixes Helped Prove Dire Predictions Wrong

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran Washington Post Foreign Service Monday, January 31, 2000; Page A13

KINGSTON, JamaicaBack in August, Eric Dorman's to-do list would have made most computer programmers in the United States quail: He had promised to solve Y2K problems at 25 businesses in just four months on this tropical island.

It appeared to be too much work to finish before Dec. 31. After all, the Gartner Group, a prominent U.S. technology consulting firm, had predicted early last year that half of Jamaica's businesses and government agencies would suffer at least one serious computer failure. The World Bank declared that the country had only a "medium awareness" of Y2K issues. Even Jamaica's commerce and technology minister had cautioned that the country was not on course to finish its year 2000 fixes until 2004.

Yet when Jan. 1 rolled around, Dorman's companies were all functioning fine, thanks to the coattails he rode. "The Americans thought that we would never finish the job in time," he boasted. "But we proved them wrong--by using a lot of their technology."

Dorman's decision to adopt the fixes developed by American and European companies, a strategy that was shared by many others on the front lines of the Y2K fight here, helps to explain why this and other developing nations entered the new year with nary an electronic hitch. That achievement initially confounded and even chagrined computer experts who had predicted widespread disruptions in such countries.

When Dorman began to analyze the systems in his windowless office, the young computer technician discovered that he did not have to revise and test millions of lines of programming code. Most of his clients relied on mass-produced software, and making them Y2K compliant, he concluded, would simply involve installing new versions of widely available programs from the United States and Western Europe.

"We didn't have to invent the wheel ourselves," said Herman Athias, a former AT&T Corp. engineer who now owns a computer consulting firm here. "We learned how to do the work much faster from countries that were much farther ahead of us."

Businesses here depended on programming "patches" developed by American firms. They used European software that automatically repaired computer code. They were able to save time by not testing elevators, certain medical devices and other equipment already found to be compliant by U.S. organizations. And, like Dorman, they found that many of their systems could be fixed with new, off-the-shelf software.

"Dealing with Y2K wasn't at all difficult," said Dorman, who wrapped up all his work by mid-December. "It was actually rather easy."

In fact, the only real suffering that Jamaica underwent as a result of a Y2K glitch was a costly drop in tourism owing to worries that proved unfounded. Because of the uncertainty about Jamaica's Y2K readiness, hotel bookings for the normally packed New Year's weekend were between 10 percent and 40 percent lower than the previous year throughout the island, said Stuart Fisher of SuperClubs, which runs 10 resorts in Jamaica. "The perception that there would be problems was the biggest problem for us," he said.

At the root of everyone's fears was Jamaica's tardiness in dealing with the "millennium bug." As in many other developing nations, most businesses and government agencies on this Caribbean island of 2.6 million people did not begin to test and fix their computer systems actively until early 1999, more than a year after large firms in the United States and Western Europe commenced their Y2K projects.

"When we first got serious about this issue, we thought it was far too late to fix all of our systems," said Camella Rhone, who coordinated Y2K preparations nationwide. "But we eventually realized that starting late didn't mean we wouldn't cross the finish line in time."

Instead of painstakingly testing medical devices as most American hospital chains did, for instance, by the time Jamaican hospitals got around to the task, the devices' manufacturers and international health care consortia had posted testing information on their Web sites. "We saved a lot of time by just going to the Internet," said Sylvia Brown, a senior manager at the Kingston office of consulting firm KPMG Peat Marwick.

International consultants and the U.S. government also lent advice. Worried that its mobile radio system might not be compliant, the Airports Authority of Jamaica checked with a visiting official from the International Air Transport Association.

"I asked them, 'What do you think of these,' " said Suzanne Grant, the authority's Y2K administrator. "They said, 'Don't worry. Somebody in another country already tested the system and it's just fine.' "

Jamaican officials acknowledged that the initial reports from their country were not encouraging. In a February 1998 survey, 160 of 200 government agencies had not yet drawn up plans to make date-related fixes, even though computers are central to many important public sector functions, from tax collection to police operations. The government also was facing an immediate repair bill of $25 million, which amounted to about 1 percent of its annual budget. (By contrast, the U.S. government has estimated that its Y2K price tag will total $8.38 billion, or less than one-half of 1 percent of its annual budget, but the cost has been spread out over several years to prevent a one-time hit.)

"There was no budget for it," said Luke Jackson, who directed the Jamaican government's Y2K project.

While the government appealed to the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank for funding, Jackson and other officials decide to perform triage on their computer systems and focus only on five crucial areas: financial services, national security, transportation, health care and utilities.

"We had to have priorities," he said. "Our resources couldn't cover all areas."

At the Jamaica Public Service Co., the island's sole electric power provider, executives determined that 75 personal computers probably would need to be fixed or replaced, but since they were not in areas of the business deemed critical to delivering electricity, they would be "fixed on failure."

Thus far, the utility has replaced 30 of the machines.

At the National Commercial Bank--which admits that it "got off to a late start" for a bank by beginning its Y2K efforts in August 1998--systems such as fax machines and electronic lighting controls were not even tested.

But like many businesses here, the bank discovered that all the electronic devices that it did not address are working just fine, largely because their embedded circuitry does not care what year it is.

Despite their reliance on shortcuts, people here were not fully confident they would have an uneventful new year. Just to be sure, government officials and business leaders drew up elaborate contingency plans to cope with power outages, inoperable telephones and dry faucets. Giant oil tanks were filled with a two-week supply of gasoline. Backup radios were purchased for the police. Bottled water was stockpiled.

Government and business officials acknowledged that they should have done a more thorough and timely job of reporting the progress with repair work. "There was a danger in assuming that just because [businesses] didn't respond to surveys, they weren't doing anything," Jackson said. "The opposite was probably true. They were probably too busy doing the work to bother filling out the forms."

But Jackson places the blame for the inaccurate forecasts squarely with technology specialists in the United States. "All those people making predictions," he scoffed, "they never even called us."

Jen's note: Although I doubt the picture in Jam. was as rosy as they paint it here, it is still good to note the quiet, but determined accomplishments of those on a "tight" budget.

Jen B.

-- The GICC Team (
giccy2k@yahoo.com), January 31, 2000

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