America’s cities are running on software from the ’80s

The only place in San Francisco still pricing real estate like it’s the 1980s is the city assessor’s office. Its property tax system dates back to the dawn of the floppy disk. City employees appraising the market work with software that runs on a dead programming language and can’t be used with a mouse. Assessors are prone to make mistakes when using the vintage software because it can’t display all the basic information for a given property on one screen. The staffers have to open and exit several menus to input stuff as simple as addresses. To put it mildly, the setup “doesn’t reflect business needs now,” says the city’s assessor, Carmen Chu.

San Francisco rarely conjures images of creaky, decades-old technology, but that’s what’s running a key swath of its government, as well as those of cities across the U.S. Politicians can often score relatively easy wins with constituents by borrowing money to pay for new roads and bridges, but the digital equivalents of such infrastructure projects generally don’t draw the same enthusiasm. “Modernizing technology is not a top issue that typically comes to mind when you talk to taxpayers and constituents on the street,” Chu says. It took her office almost four years to secure $36 million for updated assessors’ hardware and software that can, among other things, give priority to cases in which delays may prove costly. The design requirements are due to be finalized this summer.

This is a problem all over the world, and it’s more difficult than one might think to replace such outdated systems. Existing data has to be transferred, a new system has to be designed, staff has to be retrained – and, of course, since it’s not a sexy subject politicians can flaunt, it has to be done with impossible budgets that inevitably balloon, often leading to doomed projects.

It’s easy to laugh at these outdated systems still in use today, but often, replacing them simply isn’t an option.


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