What can go wrong

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It is time to adjust attitudes to systems failures and their potential consequences, as recent events have tragically shown

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8 June 2018 | 0

 

Four years on from what was a tragic loss, and the fate of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is still unknown.

All efforts to find the lost Boeing 777 have now been abandoned.

The families and friends of all 239 aboard, even the much maligned captain, are left to wonder without closure what happened to their loved ones.

But how could a 64m long, near 300 tonne aircraft simply disappear?

The night time flight took off from Kuala Lumpur en-route to Bejing, but lost radar contact around an hour into the flight. Initially thought lost in the South China Sea, later evidence emerged of handshake attempts with satellites over the Indian Ocean, that took the search in a new direction.

Search
Vast areas of the ocean were searched, various leads led nowhere, and even when a piece of debris turned up in Reunion Island, that was verified as coming from MH370, there was no breakthrough.

“As we become an ever more online culture, where things are shared and circulated with astonishing speed, we must ourselves better understand the influence and reach of technology for our lives and businesses, otherwise we risk becoming victims of it when things go wrong”

Search areas were expanded, new examinations were made of the evidence and new extrapolations were made to project where the aircraft may have come down. Private companies with expertise in the area became involved as the Malaysian Government began to wind things down, as did the Australian Navy, into whose territory it is thought the plane wandered.

All to no avail.

Theories began to emerge that it was an elaborate murder/suicide bid by the captain, when evidence emerged of his home simulator and his alleged practice flights. Some experts theorised that the crew became unconscious and disoriented, with the 777-200ER eventually coming down on its own in a catastrophic plunge. Critics say that would have produced a detectable debris field. Others still contend that the plane was ditched, having been depressurised to incapacitate the crew and passengers, and probably sank into the ocean largely intact, hence the single verified piece of debris.

Another theory put out recently suggests that the pilot was using radar avoidance techniques taught in the military for large aircraft, and shows a deliberate attempt to evade detection for as long as possible.

However, each of these theories has had holes poked in them to the point where it is not possible to say with any certainty whether this was a deliberate act or not.

One fact remains though, a large commercial aircraft, covered in sensors, bristling with telemetry and with a good type safety record disappeared with 239 people on board, leaving a devasted network of people in its wake suffering the unimaginable agony of simply not knowing.

But why am I talking about all of this now?

How?
With the last efforts now concluded, we are left to ponder a great mystery. How could such a technologically advanced aircraft, flying through highly trafficked airspace, just disappear?

With the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) deadline now passed, the recent scandals around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, the obvious interference by Russia in the US elections and even our own referendum showing signs of outside influence, there has been a great focus of late on technology and its place in our lives.

As we become an ever more online culture, where things are shared and circulated with astonishing speed, we must ourselves better understand the influence and reach of technology for our lives and businesses, otherwise we risk becoming victims of it when things go wrong.

And things do go wrong.

Sometimes it is an unexpected outage with a service provider that cascades into a major loss of service. Sometimes, it is the result of some kind of terrorism, activism or attempt to influence political machinations. But recent experience has taught us that despite the safeguards, mitigation measures and failsafes, failures still occur that can have terrible consequences.

Failure scope
The fate of MH370 is a strong reminder that even in a tightly regulated environment, where highly trained professionals working everyday under a high degree of scrutiny with the best technologies available, things can go wrong.

Every disaster, when fully examined, is almost always revealed to be a conjunction of circumstances, any one of which on its own would not have led to tragedy, but coming together, can have dire effects.

As we move more and more to the cloud, trusting the expertise of massive infrastructure providers, as well as the capabilities of ecosystem players to support, protect and encircle our services, we must remember that failures do occur, and they are often the kinds of things that entirely blindside us.

The “Black Swan” is the kind of incident that no one expects, is often difficult to comprehend and only ever fully understood after the fact. But they do happen.

We tend to think of technology as some kind of blanket that can insulate us from the worst of incidents because even when the worst happens, we expect greater visibility, greater information gathering and better orchestration of, and ability in, response. But that is not always the case.

As evidenced by the fact that MH370 not only had the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) system for communication, but its Rolls Royce Trent 800 series engines were also reporting health information back to the airline and to the manufacturers base in Derby, UK, and yet the situation was so unforeseen that none of these contained positional information.

Monitored
Despite Rolls Royce being pioneers in the world of IoT, through its engine health monitoring systems, the information gathered — two data bursts before the loss —  gave nothing of any real use as to where the plane was, or ended up.

MH370 stands as a mystery, but also as a cautionary tale that sometimes the unthinkable can happen. As we rely increasingly on technology, despite its furious pace of development, sometimes it can fail and spectacularly so. We must have the ability, as we work, to think the unthinkable, ask more of resilience and continuity measures than might have been the case before and theorise based on experience, not expectation, to know that failures will occur.

 

 

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