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Farmers go bovine over prototype mapping tool

Mark Grimshaw - chief executive - Rural Payments Agency.pngMark Grimshaw, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency is either an imbecile or a charlatan, if Farmers Weekly is anything to go by.

He’s been telling the agricultural press that his agency’s prototype mapping tool is a failure. That’s like saying a recipe is duff because your soufflé collapsed on your first trial run.

Farmers were apparently unhappy the prototype was not working as well as a production-quality system. So Grimshaw called a press conference yesterday and announced that the sky was falling down.

The odd thing was that the mapping tool had only just been released as a public beta prototype. A date hadn’t even been scheduled for a live roll-out.

Being a prototype meant farmers were supposed to be using it tentatively, so its software developers could identify problems and get them fixed. That way, the new system would only be rolled out properly when it was ready.

This style of prototyping is the big whiz for the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service (GDS), whose software developers have been producing the mapping tool. They call it iterative development. But the idea’s same as ever for such software projects: keep the old systems running while you get the new one working properly. There’s bound to be problems with a new system. So you factor in some flex. You don’t do anything reckless like tell all 88,000 farmers to use the prototype system en masse, as though it was ready, oiled and tested to roll at full speed.

Rash decisions

There was plenty of flex in the Rural Payment Agency’s new system, as it happened. Computer Weekly understands that as part of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ £155m Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Delivery Programme, it wasn’t due for final completion till the end of 2016. In any case, GDS schedules for the mapping tool didn’t have a date for the live roll-out, suggesting they were expecting to take a sensible look at the prototype and how long it might take to fix its problems before making any rash decisions.

This was just as well, because GDS had reported this mapping tool was a tricky task. This is not a bad thing. It sounded like GDS were having a lot of fun with it. They were making digital maps that farmers could use to clarify their boundaries when claiming European Union subsidies. It looked like a peach of a project to work on, and a peach of a tool for farmers too. If the Rural Payments Agency has managed farmers’ expectations so badly that they have gone bovine over the prototype, then it must be seriously in need of a dip.

Perhaps though, Grimshaw has been done a misdeed himself. You have to ask who advised him on this, and how GDS let him shove their prototype software out as though it was a done deal.

Brainless rage

He should have been especially sensitive not to rush it, because the Rural Payment Agency CAP system got such a heavy panning under the last government from Conservative politicians with an agenda against public bodies and public subsidy that it must now only take someone to say the words ‘computer’ and ‘CAP’ for farmers to froth in brainless rage.

Now Grimshaw has issued a press release saying he has given farmers “a new approach” to file their claims for EU subsidies in place of the ‘failed’ prototype. The new approach sounds remarkably similar to the existing way they do it.

The old system involved farmers using paper forms to describe their boundaries. They would send them to the Rural Payments Agency, where its officers would check the paper submission against their own computer systems and send out experts to deal with any discrepancies.

Grimshaw’s new approach will allow farmers to use paper forms to describe their boundaries and send them to the Rural Payments Agency, where its officers will check the paper submission against their own computer systems and send out experts to deal with any discrepancies.

“Fiasco”

In other words, Grimshaw said farmers will go on using the old system while the new system beds down. That was the plan all along. It was like telling someone who had just walked to work that some new prototype transport system was still in prototype phase but in the meantime, if they would forgive him, he would give them the use of their legs.

And yet he managed to convey this information in such a way that the farming media are referring to it as an “IT fiasco”. The fiasco, if there is one at all, has little to do with the IT.

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It must be lovely to be in such a binary world. but perhaps while you duke it out with The Register over whether Grimshaw or GDS are wholly and utterly responsible you could stop sneering at farmers as they 'go bovine' or 'froth in mindless rage'. Bad enough having your editor on R4 Today leaping on the fact that the farmer being interviewed had self-confessed limited IT skills.

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Dear Rupert

This article isn't sneering at farmers. Neither does it blame Grimshaw.

And neither is it binary. Quite the opposite, in fact.

You might want to read it again.

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I am a farmer. After reading “farmers go bovine” I looked out in my yard to count how many computers were within sight, there were too many to count. Tractors are full of them Combine harvesters are full of them as is the potato harvester and even the humble box tipper. Tractor drivers are more skilled with a touch screen than a pitchfork. If Mr Ballard had been listening to the Archers he would know that even the real bovines are being milked by robots. Computers don’t make farmers “froth in brainless rage”, we could not farm without them.

Unfortunately in our real world, whilst software engineers from around Europe have “a lot of fun” with their digital mapping software, farmers have a deadline to submit their information to the Rural Payments Agency (RPA). This date is not some time in 2016 but by the 15th May 2015. The time for “fun” and beta prototypes has long gone.

Farmers have processed the data for vast majority of the farmland in England on line over the last several years. The collapse of the new Government Digital Service IT system takes us farmers back a decade to pencil and paper. We have been here before, the chances of RPA staff correctly digitizing the farmers paper information onto the system before the payment deadline is virtually zero.

Farmers made the old system work by under declaring their areas so that when a check took place no problems were found. Now the RPA are insisting on us providing accurate areas in hectares to two decimal places on 100% of the field area. I have just measured an environmental grass strip around a field, the length of the strip is 2,016 meters. to calculate the area of this strip to two decimal places I need to know the average width of this 2,016 metre strip along a winding stream to within an accuracy 50 millimeters. Just a three degree slope on a field is enough to throw a maps supposed accuracy by the fabled 0.01 of a hectare.

The answer is not to suggest farmers are Luddite Bovines but in fact to ask the fundamental question, why are we doing this at all? All over Europe this spring dung heaps are being measured to two decimal places and being digitized onto “fun” mapping software. There are in the farmer’s opinion better ways to have “fun”.

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Ah no, Mr Padfield.

Bovine rage is the phrase we use round here to desribe the anger created when people are misled about computer "failures".

It's not especial to farmers!

Politicians, officials like Grimshaw, people like you and me, all have this knee-jerk reaction to stories about big public computer systems.

Some people - often politicians - exploit this misconception for their own nefarious ends.

See, for example:

Doofus alarm over £10bn NHS IT bill

Universal Credit bodged its bodge

Somerset slams Southwest One again

It seems Grimshaw was similarly misled into making a grand apology about the mapping prototype when no apology was necessary.

It was not a failed computer system; it was a prototype. It was not a bodge to get upset about; it was work-in-progress. It was not a collapse; it was a test. It was not that farmers were returned to pencil and paper; but that they merely haven't been moved from paper to the new system yet because it's not due for delivery till the end of 2016.

And you, Mr Padfield, are misleading people to suggest this article is prejudiced against farmers. Only a nincompoop would think farmers were stupid, or old-fashioned, or Luddite. And only an imp would turn a light-hearted discussion of a serious matter in to a cause for offence. You too are exploiting people's fears and prejudices.

It's a familiar story. Grimshaw, the National Farmers Union and its members should be alert to having their own misconceptions and prejudices exploited for political ends.

People's fears were similarly turned against the NHS...

Data fear caused Mid-Staffs panic

Mid-Staffs deaths about average

Inquiry behind NHS scandal omitted crucial data

NHS watchdog commandeers data in bid to stimulate privatization

Data tyranny to blame for Leeds

Data regime makes merciless start on NHS privatization

... though I don't know who might gain from this hanky-panky story about the Common Agricultural Policy computer system.

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We were told that the mapping solution would be ready for the 2015 claims windows. Mapping our land is essential for this and there were no plans to use paper. The 2016 end of the project was for non-BPS claims for Natural England, etc. I think someone may have given you some false information about when this mapping system was due to go live. I would suggest you dig a bit more.

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Thank you for clarifying this, Mr Browne.

The Rural Payments Agency did indeed decree that all subsidy claims must be made online this year.

This was done with draw-dropping negligence - not only on the part of RPA chief Mark Grimshaw, and of Defra, but also Liam Maxwell, the Cabinet Office tech chief with ultimate responsibility for software development.

The tool was a beta-phase prototype. It was therefore by definition likely to have unforeseen problems.

That the software did not work is no surprise. That Grimshaw told 88,0000 farmers they must all use it, and that the entire subsidy round this year would depend on it, is incredible.

That is the question that needs answering: how Grimshaw came to believe that he could and should get all farmers onto a beta system.

This was more likely to fail than not. Anyone familiar with large-scale computer systems, or any software development, would have known it.

More incredible still, Grimshaw told farmers they would get fined if they didn't get their applications made through this prototype system within a two-to-three month window. This put undue pressure on the system to behave as reliably as a seasoned software system.

So this is not a computer fiasco - unless you say it's a fiasco when the first time someone goes ice skating they fall flat on their arse.

The outcome of the beta roll-out is as should have been expected: farmers are having to fall back on the old way of doing things.

If Grimshaw, Defra and Maxwell knew what they were doing they would have rolled these farmers onto the new system gradually. As they did it, it was bound to fail.

There's a good account of what happend on the systems side here:

What went wrong with Defra's rural payments system?

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