Hawaii’s false alert shows the sorry state of government technology

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Photo: Dev Factory, Flickr
Media Outlet: The Washington Post

Hana Schank and Sara Hudson wrote for The Washington Post about the state of government technology:

Last weekend, people across Hawaii spent 38 minutes thinking they were going to die because a government worker selected the wrong option on a missile alert interface. Multiple images, including several from the governor’s office , later circulated showing an interface similar to the screen the employee would have been using. They all shared the same quality: outdated, confusing, problematic design.

We don’t know if the system in Hawaii was ancient or simply poorly designed, but we know that no user-experience designer worth her salt would create a giant list of links or a drop-down menu for a lifesaving function. It’s the design equivalent of installing a hand-cranked engine on a Tesla or communicating with Alexa via smoke signals.

The incident in Hawaii exposes a problem far larger than a single confusing screen: Government is not good at buying, building and using technology. So maybe the most shocking part of this story is that mistakes like this don’t happen more frequently.


Hana Schank is a Public Interest Technology Fellow at New America. Schank's current research focuses on recent and ongoing efforts within the public sector to apply human-centered design thinking and technology to society's biggest challenges. 

Sara Hudson is a fellow in New America's Public Interest Technology program. She comes to New America from the Department of Justice, where she partnered with Native American tribes to ensure access to federal information systems to protect tribal members.