Message from the Director

Spring/Summer 2014

“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

Perhaps you saw the news headlines in late July that the Social Security Administration has spent close to $300 million to procure a system known as the Disability Case Processing System (DCPS). According to a letter to the SSA from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, “The DCPS project was intended to improve case processing quality, enhance customer service, and reduce administrative costs among SSA and state disability determination services.” But unfortunately the letter goes on to say, “While the Committee supports modernizing antiquated technology, the DCPS project is costly and years behind schedule.” Because of problems with the procurement, McKinsey & Company was hired to investigate. Their report notes “the project has permanently been in `beta,’ meaning a pre-release version.” Indeed. According to the McKinsey report, now available in redacted form on the House Committee’s website, “For [the] past 5 years, Release 1.0 [is] consistently projected to be 24-32 months away.” The House letter and the redacted report never mention who the prime vendor on the procurement is, but it is easy to ascertain. Recalling my commentary in the previous issue of the ISR Connector noting some failures of a CMMI Level 5 organization at the heart of the fiasco, you might think you know where this SSA story is going to end up. Well, not exactly. While the parent organization advertises in a slide deck from 2012 that it is “CMMI Level 5,” a closer study reveals that the sub-group within that parent organization that has been doing the work was assessed at level 3 in 2013.

The Social Security Administration has decided to “reset” the program, and the McKinsey report addresses the possibility of transitioning to a new vendor and possibly moving some development in-house. Management failures are, of course, at the heart of this (and many other software engineering failures). Indeed, one of the prime recommendations for DCPS is that someone be put in charge. “Appoint a single accountable executive for DCPS, and centralize program management.” Imagine that. At a minimum we can conclude the development has been a[nother] software engineering failure; lots of focus on process, but apparently insufficient on the product.

“Alice,” Down the Rabbit Hole.

In other news, the ISR Research Forum, held at the end of May, had a major focus in the afternoon session on software-focused intellectual property. The session started with the keynote address by Pamela Samuelson, from UC Berkeley’s Law School and iSchool. Her address focused on the issue of patentable subject matter and whether “software” fits into the eligible category. Her talk led up to a discussion of Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, which at the time of the Forum had not been ruled upon by the U.S. Supreme Court. As you may have read, the Supreme Court did rule on the issue, and did so unanimously, ruling that Alice’s method, computer-readable medium, and system claims were invalid, being directed to a patent-ineligible abstract idea. Professor Samuelson’s talk was followed by a panel directed to advising entrepreneurs on what to do about intellectual property. The panel session was exceptionally lively with lots of audience participation. Unsurprisingly there were lots of conflicting opinions about what to do. What is incumbent upon us, as researchers, is development of (intellectual) property worth protecting in the first place!

This article appeared in ISR Connector issue: