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Magazines > ONLINE > November/December 2008
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Online Magazine

Vol. 32 No. 6 — Nov/Dec 2008

The Unfriendly Skies of Computer Glitches and Human Error
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

United Airlines isn’t likely to forget Monday, Sept. 8, 2008, anytime soon. No, it wasn’t weather delays at O’Hare or passengers angry at a having to pay to check a bag. It was the day the parent company (UAL) lost most of its value as its stock price plummeted due to an erroneous report of bankruptcy.

Here’s an outline of what happened: A 2002 story from the Chicago Tribune about UAL declaring bankruptcy landed in the Florida Sun-Sentinel’s “most viewed” section of its website just past midnight on Sept. 7, 2008. Google’s newsbot drifted by a few minutes later and added it as a new item with a Sept. 6, 2008, date, that being the time in California. On Monday, a person at Income Securities Advisors, a financial news and reports service that publishes the online Distressed Companies Daily News, found the item, probably because he was running an alert on bankruptcies. That person forwarded the old news story to Bloomberg as part of its daily updating arrangement. Bloomberg ran it as a new story, which caused panic selling, much of it programmatic. Trading in the stock was halted, but not before the price went as low as $3. It had opened the day at $12.17.

The blame game began almost immediately. The Tribune Co., parent to the Sun-Sentinel, blamed the Google bot and said it had had problems with its algorithm in the past. Google blamed the newspaper for putting an old story on the site and for not adequately indicating its 2002 publication date.

This reminds me of an old Sidney Harris cartoon, where a professor is writing an extraordinarily complicated mathematical formula on the blackboard. Just before the equal sign is the notation “Then a miracle occurs.” Here are the miracles of the UAL debacle. The story miraculously appeared as “most viewed.” It miraculously lacked the proper date. The person at Income Securities Advisors miraculously was so inept that he never doubted it was a recent story. Bloomberg miraculously accepted the report without question. It came from “the computer,” so it has to be correct, yes? Well, no.

As information professionals, what is to be learned? Probably nothing we don’t already know, but it’s a good object lesson to reinforce the importance of quality information. People are the critical point in the transmission of information. A person, particularly a trained professional, looking at a 2002 news story could quickly tell there was a problem with a 2008 date. A professional would not have blindly uploaded an unverified piece of data to a major news source such as Bloomberg. Not trusting the veracity of the news item, a trained professional would not have sold UAL stock as it plummeted.

Although it’s true that text-mining techniques applied to the news story could have found anomalies and kicked it out for human verification, any organization that decides to disband its information department, its library, and its information professional staff runs of the risk of flying into these same unfriendly skies. We need information professionals to ensure that accurate data is provided.

Marydee Ojala is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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