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MTA slowed by old office computer technology

by Benjamin Kabak

Over the years, one of my major themes here at Second Ave. Sagas has been the MTA’s love/hate relationship with technology. When it comes to technological innovation and adaptation, the MTA has seemingly been mired in the early 1990s, and in fact, the Regional Plan Association just profiled the MTA’s technological woes in its latest Spotlight on the Region. Only over the last few months with MTA CEO and Chair Jay Walder leading an increased push for better service and customer relations has the agency embraced newer transit technologies. Still, the agency can go only as far as their operating system can take them, and to that end, Heather Haddon reported in amNew York yesterday, the agency has some work to do.

According to transit watchdogs, old software and inadequate Internet connections are plaguing work at MTAHQ and interfering with basic tasks. Based on information Haddon received, the MTA is stuck with Microsoft applications from 2003 or earlier and have trouble with large-scale tasks. Work assignments take four months longer to generate than they should, and the MTA has run into legal sanctions when data has been lost due to computer errors. Meanwhile, Internet bandwidth is so scarce at the officers that the Internet slows to a crawl everyday.

In the end, Walder recognizes these institutional problems. “These are things we have to find out how to be more nimble about it,” he said. Yet, the problem remains the money. It costs a lot to upgrade computer equipment, and I know plenty of businesses still trying to rely on computers that are pushing seven or eight years of age. Better technology at the office will lead to a more efficient and streamlined operations, but can the MTA afford to get there in the first place?

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John February 17, 2010 - 3:50 pm

It’s a huge (and costly) effort to upgrade computer hardware and software at a big company. I’m still using Outlook 2000 at work. We’re in the process of rolling out Outlook 2007 but it’s quite a long process, and of course by the time we’re done Outlook 2010 will probably be out! But definitely worth the investment in the long-term.

Josh K February 17, 2010 - 5:09 pm

The MTA should consider open-source alternatives to proprietary software. Linux based systems for servers and there are many open-source packages for windows based desktops that do everything that one needs to do at a desktop. OpenOffice and Thuderbird can be used to replace MSOffice and MSOutlook. I use OpenOffice all the time for my computers and it works just fine with the same exact feel of MSOffice.

Lawrence Velazquez February 18, 2010 - 12:47 pm

Mozilla Thunderbird is by no means a replacement for Outlook, especially if the organization makes any use of Microsoft Exchange.

Nathanael February 22, 2010 - 4:29 am

No organization should use Microsoft Exchange; it’s far too insecure. There are perfectly good open-source alternatives.

Again, the MTA should use free, open-source software whereever possible. For all typical office tasks, they can. (For scheduling and other transit-specific tasks, there currently is no such option available.)

Josh February 17, 2010 - 6:38 pm

Hey, just like at my office!

(We recently upgraded to Outlook 2007 because our old mail server died and the new software required an upgrade from Outlook 2000, but we’re still on WinXP and Office 2000.)

Andrew February 17, 2010 - 7:53 pm

What do the newest versions of Microsoft applications do (of relevance to a transit agency) that pre-2003 versions don’t? To what extent is this actually a problem?

The RPA article that you cite (which is very interesting reading) specifically makes the point that technology is not the core issue.

Anon February 17, 2010 - 8:12 pm

Voicemail was introduced in the year 2000 and “corporate” e-mail and internet was not introduced until 2003 (at least in one MTA company that I know of).

But really, is Office 2003 applications such a big deal? If it was ’97 Office then it would be a problem.

I would guess that more than one person reading this message right now has 2003 on their machine and it works just fine.

rhywun February 17, 2010 - 9:19 pm

What do the newest versions of Microsoft applications do (of relevance to a transit agency) that pre-2003 versions don’t?

Almost nothing. My company (a mid-size insurance company) is largely on Office 2003. Office 2007 is a huge pain to migrate to, because the default file formats have changed and people quickly learn that they have to set Word and Excel to save to the old formats or else nobody can open them. I think 2007 offers some collaborative stuff that hardly anyone uses.

I agree with the RPA article that *culture* is far more important, especially to a service-oriented organization, and most especially a non-profit organization with no competition–where there’s little incentive to satisfy the customer beyond one’s own personal desire to do a good job.

John February 18, 2010 - 9:47 am

Not transit related, but Microsoft did put out a little update that allows old versions of Office to open Office 2007 documents. Works pretty well. I’d check it out.

Russell Warshay February 18, 2010 - 9:56 am

If the software that is used relies on calls to an intranet server, and the bandwidth is not there, MTA employees are probably spending a lot of time staring at their monitors while the software reads, “Not Responding.” Been there, done that. Not fun. The scene from Office Space comes to mind when they have that old printer in an empty field.

Kevin February 18, 2010 - 10:02 am

The problem with the MTA is that office equipment is not standard at all. It’s all over the map with different locations running different versions of the same application. Take Office for example. Depending on location, you could be running Office 2002, 2003, or 2007. It makes no sense to deploy different versions of the same software so randomly and have no integration plan. It only adds to the mounting support headaches for the IT staff.

Nathanael February 22, 2010 - 4:30 am

If they’re going to standardize, which they should, they should standardize on international standard open formats (which means ODF) and an open-source implementation thereof…

Lawrence Velazquez February 18, 2010 - 12:44 pm

Office 2003 seems like the last thing the MTA should be worrying about. Obtaining adequate Internet connectivity for its workers seems like a far more important goal, as developing reliable data backup systems and other crucial IT infrastructure. Whatever software they use for those subway work assignments would seem to be ripe for upgrading, also.

Ted King February 19, 2010 - 11:09 am

It’s a common practice in the railroad industry to use a company’s ROW for comm. ducts. Where does the MTA have its data lines ? Supplied by a third party ? If they are using the tunnels how old are the cables (copper vs. fiber) ?

I suspect that NYC’s MTA is like a lot of other transit agencies that have ignored the full potential of their tunnels and stations. I’m a techie with a network background. That awesome web of tunnels under NYC and the horde of mostly well located stations is a data network dream location. Think about how much fiber optic capacity could be put in. Yes, a 100% network would cost billions of dollars. But what about a few choice stations for some tens of millions of dollars ? Done in a cherry-picking / low-hanging-fruit mode there would be revenue for both the MTA and a private partner. Funding could be a mixture of public and private money (Uncle Sam might chip in 10-20% as a 911 infrastructure grant). And the municipal government could be a preferred customer and thereby put the screws to Nynex / Verizon.

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