GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Battling the Y2K e-mail problem
By now, most cities and counties have completed the first stages of their Y2K compliance activities and have tested and corrected their hardware, applications software and data. They could easily believe that they are Y2K-compliant and that there is nothing more they need to do. In fact, they may have overlooked one potential danger zone – e-mail attachments.
In 1998, 77 million e-mail users in the United States sent 246 million e-mail messages a day, according to Jupiter Communications, a market-research firm in New York. By 2002, that number will escalate to 131 million users creating 576 million messages a day.
Cities and counties could easily find themselves using non-compliant external data because new data constantly enters the system. Staff members themselves might bring in non-compliant data on a disk, and some archived PC-resident data files that may have been missed during the Y2K remediation process could be incorporated into a report. However, e-mail attachments from customers, suppliers or other government entities will be the most likely culprits.
Consider the following scenario: A county has worked hard to make all its hardware, software, applications and databases Y2K-compliant. Next January, one of the suppliers sends in a monthly report that is not compliant. The staff inputs the data in its Y2K-compliant system, where the erroneous information throws off county-wide calculations for budgets and schedules.
In that example, the errors may be serious but not fatal. Some attachments will not be compliant, but they also will not be harmful because of their context. For example, historical dates (such as birthdates) should not be changed.
Generally, dates using two-digit years are a problem and should be changed because they are ambiguous. The user might assume that 01/02/01 means the 21st century. The software might assume it refers to the 20th century, resulting in bad data.
Dates used in calculations, such as financial projections and license renewals, also pose potential problems. If non-compliant dates are left uncorrected, records could get mixed up, potentially resulting in reduced revenue, increased costs and decreased quality of service. Property tax bills, evidence in court cases, payroll and a host of other services also could be affected.
Cities and counties could respond to the e-mail problem in different ways. The e-mail could be scanned as it enters the gateway; in effect, that approach treats Y2K compliance like a virus. Scanning covers incoming and outgoing e-mails, detects non-compliant dates in attachments and alerts the sender, recipient and network manager to any potential problems.
Alternatively, the network manager could discover non-compliant dates when he re-scans the network, but that is not the best solution because it is not done in real time. The lag time would mean that the non-compliant date could stay in the network for a while, potentially causing problems.
Whatever approach is taken, it is important to realize that Y2K compliance is an ongoing activity, at least for the foreseeable future. According to the Gartner Group, a market research firm headquartered in Stamford, Conn., up to 15 percent of Y2K-related problems will occur this year. Sixty-five percent will occur in the first three quarters of 2000, and the remaining 15 percent will occur the next year.
Most cities and counties hopefully have completed the first phase of remediation. Now it is time to move to the next phase – ongoing data – and do what is necessary to ensure continuous Y2K compliance.