Coding matters: Paper, paper, everywhere

Paper, paper everywhere! Photo of stocks of paper files.

Government officials have been talking about AI again. Not so long ago, they talked about preparing South Africa for 4IR. And before that, the political IT buzz word of the day was digitization.

I suspect government digitization has only been a little more successful than fixing Eskom.

It's 2023

Digitization is defined as:

  • the conversion of text, pictures, or sound into a digital form.
  • The adaptation of a system or process to be operated with the use of computers and the internet.

It's 2023. Of course we're digitized! You shop online. When you go to a cell company or a bank, they look up your info on a computer. Even the municipal library has a computerised system, albeit old and slow.

Most companies have had computerised data and processes for years. There may still be some old, non-critical records that need to be scanned. Or a few minor processes that are manual. And small businesses might still do things by hand. But if you use files with paper printouts, it's probably because you like paper.

A long, long time ago

In the 1990s, I worked as a State Advocate at the Office of the Attorney-General in Johannesburg. At that time, very little at the Department of Justice (DoJ) was computerised. For example, we took legal documents to the typists to be typed! (If you were born after I started working, you probably don't believe me.) I had my own 286 computer, so I could type and print my documents. Which made me very popular with colleagues who missed the head typist's deadlines.

At one stage, I headed up a small task force. Our job was to resolve over 3000 outstanding fraud dockets. At the time, Renier wrote a simple tracking system for me using Clarion. (Like Microsoft Access in a previous lifetime). Can you imagine how unusual that was? I was an early adopter of digitization!

Fast forward 25 years

Last week I made my dreaded trip to the Master of the High Court in the centre of Pretoria. Forget AI. The government should still be talking about digitization.

The DoJ pilot online system went live in October 2023. It has limited functionality. But I could upload documents, and the Assistant Master could see them. Unfortunately, I still needed to bring in the original will.

What I want to know is this: What will happen to that document? Because here's the process I saw:

  1. The Assistant Master physically stamped the will and wrote the (system) reference number on it in red koki. Then he told me to take a cellphone photo of it as proof that I handed it in.
  2. Next he punched a hole in the document for filing. There were piles and piles of paper folders on the floor. No filing cabinets. On. the. floor. Like the photo I used for this blog post, only less organised.
  3. He then made a note in an A4 notebook that he had received the will. This was not a formal register. It was a normal hardcover A4 book that you can buy at any stationary shop. There was no structure: no columns, or marked pages. It was like the notes I make daily in my to-do notebook.

If I were handling a multi-million rand estate with feuding heirs, I would be very worried.

Don't be surprised

I should not have been so surprised by this. A few years before lockdown, I was at the offices of SITA (State Information Technology Agency). There was a room overlowing with piles of documents and file folders on the floor. Some of the paper piles had fallen over, and there were loose pages everywhere. This was, apparently, part of their process of digitising old records.

In 2022, I saw the same chaos at the Midrand Licencing Office. Papers and files lying everywhere. And those papers contain people's id numbers, and contact details. Don't even whisper the "POPI" word.

I think the good news is that the government can't get less efficient. But I might be wrong.

What do you think happens to all those documents? I'd love to hear your theories

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