This botched migration shows why you need to deal with legacy tech

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While working on a piece about the talent crunch in cybersecurity, I was a tad surprised when legacy systems popped up as a common challenge that IT administrators struggle with today. 

I expected organizations would have figured out by now that IT sprawl is costly and their adoption of new technology in search of operational efficiencies is unlikely to be fruitful if their migration plan does not include phasing out legacy systems. 

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More importantly, with resources already scarce, clinging on to legacy infrastructure increases the workload for cybersecurity teams that have to safeguard newly acquired systems while still dealing with old tools that may no longer be supported by the manufacturer. 

So, why is it so hard to let go of the old and move on with the new? Are we die-hard tech hoarders?

A recent botched transition to a new transport e-payment platform in Singapore might offer some answers. 

On Jan. 9, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced that two legacy stored value cards, EZ-Link and NETS FlashPay, would no longer be used to pay for public transport fares starting from June. The move is part of the country's transition to the SimplyGo system that LTA said had commenced in 2019. 

Apart from its use as payment for public bus and train fares, the contactless EZ-Link cards are also accepted as a payment option at various locations island-wide, including convenience stores, fast-food outlets, and taxis.

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In its statement, LTA said most commuters would not be affected by the transition because they already are using SimplyGo EZ-Link or contactless bank cards. "Commuters using concession cards, such as seniors, students, Workfare Transport Concession Scheme cardholders, and persons with disabilities, will also not be affected," said the transport authority, which noted that two in three adult-fare transactions on public transport are made using either SimplyGo EZ-Link or bank cards. 

The transport authority probably wasn't expecting the public outcry that swiftly followed. 

In touting the benefits of SimplyGo, LTA said the platform's mobile app allows commuters to top up their cards anytime via credit or debit card and receive notification when the balance on their SimplyGo card is low. They can also block further transactions if they lose their card. 

However, there were general concerns these benefits would be lost on the elderly who may not be tech-savvy. Top on the list of grievances, though, is the omission of one key feature that is available on the existing EZ-Link ecosystem: the ability to view fare deductions and card balances as commuters pass through train station gates and bus card readers. 

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This capability quickly emerged as a basic function that many had come to expect -- and already had access to -- on their public transport infrastructure, and were promptly appalled the feature would no longer be available on a supposedly newer and better system. 

In other words, why fix something that isn't broken and then make it worse?

The backlash eventually drove LTA to backtrack on the migration two weeks later, with Transport Minister Chee Hong Tat acknowledging the "judgement error" in pushing through the SimplyGo system. He added that LTA had "underestimated" commuters' reliance on the ability to view card balances and fare deductions as they entered and exited train stations and buses. 

Chee said the existing infrastructure will remain in place until at least 2030 and SG$40 million will be set aside to purchase new hardware and maintain the existing system to allow commuters to continue using EZ-Link and NETS FlashPay cards. This figure will not lead to an increase in public transport fares, the minister said, adding that the government instead will bear the cost. 

Confirming that the current system will "not [be] sunset in 2024 as originally planned," Chee said in a Facebook post that a technical challenge was behind the decision to omit the ability to view card balances. 

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Because account-based ticketing cards such as SimplyGo do not retain fares and card balance data, it would take "a few seconds" to retrieve the information from the backend system and display it at fare gates and on bus card readers, he explained. 

"This would slow down the flow of commuters and cause long queues, especially during peak hours," he said. "Unfortunately, there is currently no technical solution to this."

Chee added that he had tasked LTA to assess ways to enhance the features and improve user experiences for account-based ticketing cards. In particular, the priority will be finding ways for these cards to provide what commuters want -- to view fare deductions and card balances as they enter and exit trains and buses.

This new challenges begs the question, why wasn't this feature a priority -- or at least part of the development plan -- in the transition toward the new system? 

Losing sight of what matters

To convince users to adopt new technology, you need to first give them a reason to do so. Start by identifying how the new technology can benefit them and the organization. And to identify the benefits the technology can provide, first understand how users operate and the organization functions. 

Were the folks who laid out the development plan for SimplyGo commuters? If they were, surely they would have recognized the importance of ensuring a key existing function continued to be available in the new system? Even if the brains behind the new system weren't commuters, they should have at least exposed it to a test user group comprising actual commuters who would have noted the missing feature.

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Underestimating the importance of user buy-in will more likely lead to a resistance to change and is a key reason why businesses end up having to retain legacy systems. That retention results in higher operational costs, which adds strain on existing resources and creates a wider surface area that needs to be secured. 

Could the additional SG$40 million that the Singapore government now has to set aside to maintain the existing system have been put to better use by identifying alternative solutions earlier in the development process of SimplyGo? Why did the LTA team have to wait for the minister to instruct them to do that work? 

It's now more essental than ever before -- amid the currently sparkling lure of artificial intelligence -- that organizations keep their eyes firmly fixed on the users that any technology is supposed to benefit. 

As Singapore has seen, it only takes one underestimated user feature to halt an entire migration plan and add years to a system otherwise headed for sunset. This error is an expensive legacy that the country can hopefully learn from.

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