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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

Technologically speaking, Toronto can't afford to keep living in the past

Mayor and city council must commit to investment for sake of Toronto Community Housing residents and the bottom line, Matt Elliott says

One of the first computers at Toronto City Hall, circa 1968, promised to answer questions about tax bills in as little as 1.5 seconds. It could also be programmed to sing Anchors Aweigh.

Torstar News Service file

One of the first computers at Toronto City Hall, circa 1968, promised to answer questions about tax bills in as little as 1.5 seconds. It could also be programmed to sing Anchors Aweigh.

Toronto Community Housing Corporation – Canada’s largest landlord, responsible for 110,000 of the city’s most vulnerable residents – uses over 125 different IT systems, according to a report headed to Mayor John Tory’s executive committee today.

And those systems are old and busted.

In addition to being outdated and inefficient, the report prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers points out that many TCHC systems aren’t even able to communicate with one another. The system which forecasts repairs, for example, has no way to interface with the system that handles the procurement for those repairs.

It’s a scene straight out of the convoluted technology world of the ‘90s.

This might seem like a strange thing to gripe about when TCHC faces so many other problems. Frustrations with outdated computers feel a bit trivial when stacked up against the challenge of a $2.6 billion repair backlog.

But this nerdy stuff matters. Outdated systems, the report says, create the potential for errors – and when you’re dealing with work as important as finding housing for the city’s poorest residents, errors can have life-altering impacts.

The problems are not just confined to TCHC. Tales of woe stemming from the city’s outdated technology infrastructure are commonplace in and around city hall.

City Manager Peter Wallace, for example, has noted how baffled he was when he came to city hall and discovered that he was expected to sign paper attendance slips to track his staff’s comings and goings.

Elsewhere, the city’s lack of modern, coordinated IT infrastructure has more serious consequences. In April, Toronto auditor general Beverly Romeo-Beehler told city council that her investigation into alleged bid rigging with city paving contracts was complicated by the fact that the bids were submitted entirely on paper.

With no centralized computer database, Romeo-Beehler and her team literally had to make like the Scooby Doo gang and drive around in a van to solve this mystery – collecting data by hand at various offices.

In that case, the city’s busted technology created a possible avenue for fraud. In the TCHC’s case, it creates margin for error. And in other departments, it prompts daily frustration – and missed opportunities.

Thankfully, there are signs city hall is slowly dragging itself out of the technological stone age. Departments like the city clerk’s office and the Toronto Open Data team have in recent years made great strides with their online presence. And in a strong move in the right direction, the city will soon open a Civic Innovation Office.

For them, job one should be looking internally at the city’s various systems — and coming up with a plan to fix them.

A warning: it’s going to cost us.

The city didn’t arrive here by happenstance. An atmosphere of austerity in municipal budgeting has continuously pushed bureaucrats to delay and cancel upgrades. Sustainable improvement will not happen without a mayor and city council who are willing to invest in technology infrastructure.

Moving into the future won’t be cheap, but Toronto really can’t afford to keep living in the past.

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