Monday, February 21, 2005

How a Mistake Becomes a Fact

First, you create a story, then you keep it going not by facts or confirmation, but by repetition. And if you remember the infamous "Internet traffic doubling every X days" myth of the late 1990s, eventually anyone who nay-says the original "fact" is the outsider.

When it emerged at the Senate Estimates last week that CSIRO had spent $9 million over four years on a Web site (it had not, but more on this later), the usual suspects had a field day.

The story was wrong; it arose only because a senator repeatedly said that CSIRO had spent the money on a Website. As was transparently clear from the response from CSIRO, the money (spent over four years) went on:

- a new content management system being deployed across the whole organisation (that’s a lot of seats for software licenses, with more than 6,000 staff);

- the Website itself, which consolidates a couple of hundred of existing Websites; and

- the most expensive piece of the puzzle: multi-millions each year on communications links.

According to CSIRO, in response to the gleefully ignorant Labor senator last week, communications cost $1.8 million last year. Considering that CSIRO, as a scientific research organisation, is very hungry for bandwidth, and considering that it’s involved in setting up stuff like 10 Gbps wide-area links, my feeling is that it’s doing an outstanding job of getting value for money on the comms part of the puzzle.

As for the rest: the new content management system, new consolidated websites and so on are costing not “more than nine million” but less than $3 million – over four years.

But the problem is this: the statement that CSIRO is spending $9 million on a Website, wrong though it is, has been made, put in a headline, and it’s stuck there on the public record.

That makes it all right for Australian IT to make this statement:

Government website projects have had a troubled history, with the most recent example being the revelation that the CSIRO's revamped website would cost the agency a massive over $9.47 million by the time it went live in April.”

Wrong. CSIRO’s Website is not costing the agency “a massive $9.47 million”. The story is,7204,12293815%5E15319%5E%5Enbv%5E15306,00.html"> here.

But it’s on the record, and reciting from some other journalist’s mistake is easier than reading the long and tedious transcripts from Senate Estimates hearings.

In another year's time, this "fact" will have the same currency as the WorldCom "traffic doubling" fact - and it will be entirely the fault of the press.