Y2K glitch calls jurors for duty 100 years ago

A call to a programming library that was not Y2K-ready was the culprit in a court mailing that ordered about 500 Philadelphians to report for jury duty January 3, 1900, said a city official.

Philadelphia jury commissioner Michael J. McAllister said he learned of the glitch November 26 when one of the potential jurors, Charles McLaughlin, called in.

At first, McAllister thought the problem derived from human error. "All I could think was it was a deferral, which is handled manually, and someone entered the wrong date," he said.

Further checks over the weekend traced the problem to an electronic form. Last spring, "we developed and implemented a new form, using fully Y2K-compliant software," McAllister said. "But sometime after the end of testing in May, one of the programmers made a change in format using a library that he didn't notice was not Y2K-compliant."

The summonses are automatically laser printed, folded, stuffed in envelopes and sealed for mailing in an off-site operation that takes 30 minutes to produce 500 notifications, McAllister said. "In retrospect, someone should have opened one up and checked it - a process that will take place in future," he said.

The jury commission's contingency plan provides for hand processing of the summonses on standalone PCs and takes about 12 hours to do 500 summons, McAllister said.

City chief information officer Brian Anderson characterized the glitch as "more of a display problem." His first reaction to the news, he said, "was I hope this is the biggest (Y2K) problem we have. I mean it was embarrassing, but it was relatively minor. I was surprised at the reaction -- everyone was so tense, as if they'd been waiting for something to happen."

The reaction shouldn't have been a surprise, said Kazim Isfahani, a Y2K analyst with Giga Information Group.

"We all expect such incidents; this is the beginning of the opening of the floodgates." Consequences of the snafu were minor, he said, "but the ultimate cost to the city - whether that cost is explicit or intrinsic - is greater." Such incidents erode public confidence, he said.

The court's two mainframes and data centres are among those not under his jurisdiction, Anderson said. Neither are information systems of the school district, the housing authority and the city's gas company, he said.

Although Anderson has met with representatives from those organisations, the meetings have been "high level," he said. "Based on this incident, we're going to have another conversation with them," he said. Today he is meeting with court IT staff to "see what production controls they have in place, what programmers have access to libraries," and other nitty-gritty details, he said.

"We've been looking to consolidate these systems," he said. "This may get us a step closer."

Meanwhile, the court's IT department is booked up for this weekend. "I've got a stack of forms and printouts and compliance documents on my desk. This coming weekend, we're going to turn the clock ahead to Jan. 1 and run checks on all of them again," McAllister said.

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