Well, it happened again last night.
The heating and air conditioning system isn’t the only thing that doesn’t work in Clarke County’s new Joint Government Center. Computers and networks used to display critical information at public meetings regularly malfunction and often cause County staff to go to “Plan B”.
Definition: Plan “B” – a frustrating and generally futile attempt to describe the information contained on charts, graphs and presentations that often take hours of work to put together but can’t be displayed because the target computer system fails to operate efficiently or reliably.
At two recent JGC building committee meetings, attempts to display images being considered for use in the building’s lobby caused the meeting room’s computer to languish for nearly twenty minutes while staff members dabbled with buttons and attempted, in vain, to get someone – anyone really – into the room who could fix the problem. Meeting attendees eventually resorted to neighborly small talk to kill time before finally drifting off to other appointments after it became clear that the desired digital images were not planning on surfacing anytime soon.
The frustrating thing is that the JGC’s computer problems aren’t rooted in poor software or lack of technical skill by the people using the systems.
The JGC computers are just old – really old.
Old in the sense that the computers were purchased when average file sizes – and available computer memory – were much smaller and Internet connectivity was more complex. Old in the sense that their web browsers have difficulty accessing County networks. Old in the sense that presenters with experience at the JGC bring their own personal computers rather than trust their fate to the JGC computers.
The good news is that today’s modern computers are not only more reliable and more powerful, they’re also much cheaper. The two ancient JGC systems could be replaced with newer basic, but more powerful and reliable computer systems, for probably less than a thousand dollars.
At Monday night’s School Board meeting, computer problems generated a distracting sideshow as school staff members attempted to coax the ailing system into working. At least fifteen school and county staff members, five School Board members and many citizens were ultimately unable to obtain the information that they came to hear because the computers could never be made to work.
“As a general comment, this is not the first time that we’ve had technology problems here” School Board member Robina Bouffault said as three staff members tried in vain to access the School Board’s online document system. “We have digital Board Docs now and we are legally obligated to have a copy of our documents available to the public. Normally when we have Board Docs up on the screen it is available to the public while were going through the meeting. But when this is not working properly there are no copies available to the public.”
At around seventeen minutes into the meeting, when all of the fiddling, fussing and probably a few colorful, but unspoken, phrases failed to prod the old systems into action, Clarke County Public Schools’ ever resourceful testing coordinator Ed Shewbridge was left with no other recourse other than going to Plan B; Instead of displaying his many pages of complex charts and graphs covering SAT & SOL scores, school accreditation statistics, annual measurable objectives and other text, Shewbridge simply read each presentation page to the School Board line-by-line.
The only reason that Plan B could even be attempted is because the School Board already had a strong working knowledge of the often confusing acronyms and jargon associated with the No Child Left Behind law. Even so, listening to line after line of statistical comparisons probably wasn’t the best use of anyone’s time.
One can only imagine what the experience must have been for the twenty-plus citizens sitting in the audience.
Budgets are tight right now and we all understand that our officials are doing everything that they can to keep the County budget under control. But spending a little money on a couple of new computers wouldn’t be a bad investment in our local democracy.
Afterall, a picture – or should we say a PowerPoint presentation – is worth a thousand words and probably much more than a thousand dollars.