Computers, systems, satellites and…potholes!

A couple of weeks ago, the Badger’s saw OneWeb’s announcement that it was to launch the 36 satellites completing their first-generation Low Earth Orbit constellation on the 26th March 2023. Earlier this week the launch from a Space Centre in India took place successfully and the Badger mentally cheered all the engineers and computing professionals involved. This achievement has computers and  ‘systems’ at its heart, and this fact coloured the Badger’s thoughts as he left home to walk to the local shops. By the time he returned, however, positivity about computers and ‘systems’ relating to satellites had been replaced by gloom about ‘systems’ for fixing potholes on roads!

The route to the shops means navigating a T junction between a busy side road and a main thoroughfare. The approach to the junction is heavily potholed for about 30 metres. The surface, which has many of the different types of crater set out in the RAC’s Pothole Guide, is a danger to pedestrians, cyclists, motor cyclists, and car drivers alike. It’s been this way for a very long time, making it a wonderful  example of the pothole blight  infecting UK roads. Reports to the County Council have led to monthly visits by a repair crew who only patch a small number of holes every time.  

As the Badger walked by, a repair crew was patching a few holes again, and a lady was demanding to know why some holes were being patched but others, equally dangerous, were not. The workmen told her that ‘the central computer’ produces their worksheet and that they only fix, and get paid for, what’s on it. ‘Don’t blame us, blame the computer’, the workmen asserted bluntly. The Badger walked quickly by, thinking that the ‘system’ – the overall combination of process, people, IT, contracting, finance, quality, and compliance – was the problem, not the ‘the computer’.  

On returning from the shops, the repair crew and the lady had gone. A few potholes had been patched, but after three visits by a repair crew in the first three months of this year the road remains a danger to road users and pedestrians, especially at night. On reaching home, the Badger cogitated over a coffee and concluded two things. The first was that if motor vehicles are required to have annual MOT roadworthy tests, then road surfaces should also be required to have some kind of regular safety certification. The second was that for a country that has a computer and ‘systems’ pedigree that can put and operate satellites in space, it’s ‘systems’ for the repair of potholes on its roads are shameful. Although computers get conveniently blamed for many things in today’s world, it’s worth remembering that ‘systems’, which are much more than just computers, are more often the culprit.


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