Friday, February 17, 2006

Database error causes unbalanced budget

Bruce Schneier reports on how a house in Valparaiso, Indiana was incorrectly valued at $400 million due to a single-keystroke error by an "outside user" of Porter County's appraisal records. This incorrect valuation led to an expectation of $8 million in property taxes due from that homeowner, which led to a erroneous increase of budgets and even distribution of funds. Now the Porter County Treasurer has had to ask 18 governmental units to return funds--the city of Valparaiso and Valparaiso Community School Corp. have been asked to return $2.7 million, which will leave the school system with a $200,000 budget shortfall.

The number of errors here is huge--first of all, an external user shouldn't have access to change budget data at all, let alone by a typo which caused the user to invoke "an assessment program written in 1995" which "is no longer in use, and technology officials did not know it could be accessed." Second, there should have been checks on the data to identify anomalies like a house suddenly jumping in value to $400 million. Third, there should have been checks on the accuracy of budget numbers before the disbursement of funds. And I'm sure I'm only scratching the surface--it sounds like they've got some serious IT infrastructure issues.

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