IT's biggest project failures & what they teach us

Think your project's off track and over budget? Learn a lesson or two from the tech sector's most infamous project flameouts.

US Census Bureau's handheld units

Back in 2006, the US Census Bureau made a plan to use 500,000 handheld devices -- purchased from Harris under a US$600 million contract -- to help automate the 2010 census. Now, though, the cost has more than doubled, and their use is going to be curtailed in 2010 -- but the Census Bureau is moving ahead with the project anyway.

During a rehearsal for the census conducted in the fall of 2007, according to the GAO, field staff found that the handheld devices froze or failed to retrieve mapping coordinates. Furthermore, multiple devices had the same identification number, which meant they would overwrite one another's data.

After the rehearsal, a representative of Mitre Corp., which advises the bureau on IT matters, brought notes to a meeting with the bureau's representative that read, "It is not clear that the system will meet Census' operational needs and quality goals. The final cost is unpredictable. Immediate, significant changes are required to rescue the program. However, the risks are so large considering the available time that we recommend immediate development of contingency plans to revert to paper operations."

There you have it, a true list of IT Ig Nobels: handheld computers that don't work as well as pencil and paper, new systems that are slower and less capable than the old ones they're meant to replace. Perhaps the overarching lesson is one that project managers should have learned at their mothers' knees: Don't bite off more than you can chew.

No Prize for IT

Information technology has rarely won an Ig Nobel award in the 18 years the prizes have been doled out by the Improbable Research organization.

Should we take the snub personally?

Marc Abrahams, the editor of Improbable Research, the organization's blog, says he thinks IT's relative absence is simply because the field is younger than other disciplines. "Certainly IT offers the same level of absurdity as other areas of research," he says comfortingly.

He points out that Murphy's Law, whose three "inventors" (John Paul Stapp, Edward A. Murphy, Jr. and George Nichols,) were honored with an Ig Nobel in 2003, sprang from an IT-like project in the late 1940s. Murphy was an electrical engineer who was brought in to help the Air Force figure out why safety tests they were conducting weren't producing any results. Murphy discovered that the electronic monitoring systems had been installed "backwards and upside down," according to Abrahams, which discovery caused him to mutter the first version of the law that bears his name.

Other Ig Nobels drawn from the world of technology include:

2001: John Keogh of Melbourne, Australia, won in the Technology category for patenting the wheel; he shared the award with the Australian Patent Office, which granted him Innovation Patent #2001100012 (pdf) for a "circular transportation facilitation device."

2000: Chris Niswander of the US, won a Computer Science Ig Nobel for his development of PawSense, software that can tell when a cat is walking across your keyboard and make a sound to scare it off.

1997: Sanford Wallace -- yes, that Sanford Wallace -- of Cyber Promotions takes the Communications Ig Nobel for being the Spam King.

The Ig Nobels, it must be remembered, aren't into value judgments.

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