Flawed Forecasting

By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2004-07-15 Print this article Print

The bottom line, says Raymond Hession, a former federal employee hired to review the project and its future, is that the billion-dollar price tag was likely inevitable. "This is a large, complex electronic database, with very large networks and a lot of people accessing it. It costs money," he says. "The problem is the original forecast was based on flawed assumptions."

Prior to 1995, Canada had a limited system of federal and provincial agencies in place to handle the licensing of new guns. However, that system only accounted for guns at the time of purchase—the government did not keep track of the estimated 7 million guns already in circulation. Initially, the federal government believed it could use the same agencies that issued firearm acquisition certificates to handle the registration. However, that plan had to be abandoned when several provinces, primarily those with strong hunting lobbies, refused to cooperate.

The federal government was forced to assume responsibility for the project. It created a new agency, the Canadian Firearms Centre, to act as a single point to manage and control the program, operating under the federal Justice Department.

One other factor dramatically altered the projects scope. A shooting spree in 1996 in British Columbia highlighted an obvious flaw in the planned licensing and registry system. In that instance, the killer applied for a license to purchase a gun and was approved, even though his estranged wife had complained to police several times that he had threatened to kill her. Because the man had not been convicted, the incidents were not recorded in the national police database, the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC).

The government then decided to include all violent incidents reported to police, whether they resulted in a criminal conviction or not, as grounds for further reviewing a license application. This involved tapping into the computer records of every police agency in the country and having information on any reported threats, domestic violence or related incidents pushed out to a new central database, the Firearm Interest Police System (FIPS). This database in turn would be integrated with CPIC and the new firearm registry in Ottawa.

Instead of a simple database where citizens registered their firearms, the scope of the initiative had been expanded to that of a large computer networking project.

In June 1997, Electronic Data Systems of Plano, Texas, and U.K.-based SHL Systemhouse were awarded a $30 million contract to build the system. EDS headed up development of the main registry database and application. SHL took on responsibility for the interfaces with other government and police agency systems and databases. At the heart of the system: an Oracle 7 database to collect licensing and registration information, such as the make, model, caliber, and serial number of firearms. An application to input information from mailed-in registration forms, and perform the electronic checks with other systems such as the national police computer database, was created using Sybases PowerBuilder software.

Dwayne King, the lead developer of the Oracle database, says even with the projects expanded scope, the computerized registry was well within the technical capabilities of the development team. He and others such as Hession attributed ensuing problems to the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the gun registry.

Political wrangling and pressure from the gun lobby and government officials prompted numerous changes to license and registry forms, rules and processes. By 1999, the development team had dealt with more than 1,000 orders for changes to the system, which created headaches for programmers.

Next Page: Dealing with close to 50 different department or agency computer systems.

Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.


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