Sunday, March 30, 2008


Taiwan Missile Myopia – It’s data quality that matters!

This last week (26 March 2008) the US Department of Defense confessed to making an embarrassing mistake – discovered only recently – that a year and a half ago it sent Taiwan four high-tech electrical fuses for Minuteman missile nose-cone assemblies instead of UH-1 Huey helicopter batteries. Because these missiles carry nuclear warheads, most of the commentary about the story has been concerned with nuclear proliferation in general or on the more specific impact on US relations with China, which views any military support of Taiwan as an intrusion into domestic affairs. But I think that focusing on this specific episode – this "Missile Myopia" – is missing a bigger point.

I recognize that this mix-up has political implications, but it is probably not uncommon for the wrong items to be shipped from supply warehouses. The DOD hasn't said anything specific about the part numbers or classifications for the mixed-up items, but perhaps they are easily confusable – visually similar (1 vs. l [that's "one" and "lowercase L"]), or transpositions (ab vs. ba) or transformations (abba vs. abaa [doubling errors are common typing mistakes]) of each other.

(There is a mini-science about these kinds of confusability and typing errors, and unfortunately it is often exploited by spammers and domain name hijackers [e.g., micorsoft]).

Or perhaps the part numbers for electrical fuses and helicopter batteries are the same (after all, they certainly come from different suppliers, and every supplier creates his own numbering scheme) and the real mistake is that "classified" or "unclassified" parts were put into the same part of the supply warehouse.

By coincidence, less than a month ago in my Document Engineering course we read a short case study article from CIO Magazine called
"Operation Clean Data"
that describes several efforts to deal with bad data. The first is dead-on relevant to this current Taiwan Missile Crisis. It concerns the British military's efforts to clean up the information in its supply chain by reconciling 850 different information systems, and integrating three inventory management systems…

To one system, stock number 99 000 1111 was a 24-hour, cold-climate ration pack. To another system, the same number referred to an electronic radio valve. And if hungry troops were sent radio valves instead of rations, the invasion and rebuilding of Iraq wouldn't have gone very far.

The British military isn't helping us much in Iraq any more, but if it still wants to help us win "the global war on terror" maybe it can send us some of their data cleanup people to help us fix our supply warehouse problems.

-Bob Glushko

As Bob mentioned, I was reminded of "Operation Clean Data" as I was reading this news story.

As unfortunate as it is, I am sure that these kind of mistakes are not uncommon. I wouldn't be surprised if the error was due to the reasons Bob mentioned (visually similar, transpositions, transformations, etc.)

Another interesting aspect of this article is the fact that this mistake went unnoticed for so many months - seemingly on both the Taiwanese and American sides - where both were doing some kind of inventory control.

Proper inventory on either side should have alerted someone that something was wrong. Instead, Taiwan simply stored the shipment somewhere (wasting space, and not getting what they needed), and the US simply assumed that the correct items were shipped out.

I wonder what would have happened when the incorrectly shipped items were actually needed and they were found to be out of stock?
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