Garbage In, Garbage Out

Garbage In Garbage Out

The title of this post is a very old adage used in computer circles, often abbreviated as “GIGO”.

It’s a pretty straightforward concept – you can’t expect computers to return meaningful or useful results if their inputs are flawed.

Two recent issues have really made me think long and hard about the data we rely on in strata – the rise of AIs, and the NSW Government’s Strata Hub.

On AIs, I’ll just add one problem out of many I’ve not already covered: investigations of the source data for LLM chatbots are exposing biases and omissions which can seriously impact the outputs users receive. If the source data includes discriminatory text regarding, say, gender or race, so will the output. Certainly not a good look to rely on such potentially tainted output for business communications. This is only made worse by the widespread secrecy surrounding source data sets, preventing suitable oversight of these chatbots and their output.

Onto more directly strata-related issues, when reviewing required information and how to collate it for the Strata Hub, the challenges facing the industry regarding records management was brought prominently to my mind.

I was always aware that the information which needs to be handled, processed, and stored in the strata industry had grown exponentially since strata’s introduction in NSW in 1961.

Not only are we more connected and generating a monumental amount of correspondence in our day-to-day strata dealings, but additional compliance and regulatory regimes are accelerants for this trend.

But I’ve seen firsthand that even at its most basic level, the data we have regarding the schemes we work on is often incorrect, missing, or so badly maintained as to be effectively useless.

A simple case in point is the quality of graphical data such as strata plans and drawings for by-laws.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the gradual degradation which occurs when images are duplicated, then those duplicates are duplicated, and so on, until the details within the image become lost in a sea of noise.

I’ve seen strata plans where the Lot numbers were unable to be distinguished from each other in parking or storage areas, and an exclusive use by-law drawing for an “open plan” garage area which was so degraded after 30+ years that the Lot numbers were literally just blobs. In that case, we had to rely on recollections of the allocations, but we could not independently confirm these by reference to the by-laws.

I had previously become very familiar with this degradation when I was a desktop publisher, as customer artwork and logos were often copies of copies of copies, and suffered visible degradation each generation from the old analog reproduction technologies.

One method to avoid this was to digitise the logos as “vector” art, but that takes time, and not everything needing to be reproduced warranted such conversion.

And while digital scanning technologies have allayed this degradation to some degree by allowing the “tidying up” of noise, tech can only do so much, and some inherent scanning and compression features may even change the content of images scanned!

And that’s just one aspect of how we store important data and documents in strata which can seriously impede the productive management of schemes. Some others are:

  • Poor file naming practices: This is a real bugbear for me. I’ve been in the habit for a couple of decades now of having a stringent naming convention, and it has translated pretty well to strata. The elements are:
    • Correspondent’s name – always preceded by the SP number
    • Subject – short, descriptive, and consistent
    • Date – choose appropriate date formats for all uses (including filenames) and stick to them
  • People seeing the filename should be able to quickly determine what the file is to a pretty high degree of confidence without needing to open the file.
  • Transcription errors: We all make mistakes when transcribing – repeated transcription (say, between systems) leads to degradation of the data further and further away from the original.
    I’ve seen several instances of recorded insurance replacement values being inflated a hundredfold by a team member simply omitting the decimal point but including the cents! Verifying data before Strata Hub upload found those errors pretty quickly.
  • Discarding old records: We are only required in strata to keep records for 7 years – any discarded records may hold vital information regarding approvals of renovations, agreements between parties, the rationale for decisions, etc.
    In this day and age, I think it’s much less onerous to just keep strata records forever.
  • Non-entry (or misallocation) of information or records: if the records can’t be found, they may as well have been discarded. Just like transcription, humans make errors when storing records.
  • Not updating incorrect information: The old “I’ll get back to that later” problem. We’re all busy in strata, but if you see something is incorrect, fix it immediately if at all possible.
  • Owner or committee ignorance: How many of us can say that their strata roll is 100% up-to-date? Or that all committee decisions are properly recorded in the books and records
    Many owners aren’t aware or can’t be bother to fulfil their obligations to provide updates, and committee decisions and approvals are not always captured in meeting minutes.
  • Flood of data or communications: The amount of information falling across a manager’s “desk” these days is staggering. Are all relevant e-mails being filed? How is the relevance of such communications being assessed against the record-keeping requirements under the Act?
  • Data type or quantity mismatches: Another one I picked up when verifying information for the Strata Hub. Strata Hub has information pre-populated from Land Registry Services for each strata plan, but that didn’t always match the strata plan drawings or Certificate of Title on record.
  • Inter-system Incompatibilities: A superset of the preceding item – if the data doesn’t match between systems, how do you correct for or manage that difference? If your records can’t help you resolve the issue, you could have a problem on your hands.
  • Handover of books and records: a classic point where things can go awry. Incompatible file formats, clunky (or outdated) viewing applications, useless filenames or file formats, forgotten or mis-stored records not being handed over. A superset of “transcription”, and often featuring actual data transcription and its attendant errors.
  • No effective audits of record management and storage: If no-one ever checks that the above are being adhered to, and that errors are being picked up, it will lead to bad and lost records, an inability over time to correct mistakes (turnover loses so much institutional memory and context), and reduction in effective management of schemes.

If any or all of these impact the ability to effectively manage the scheme or provide clear records when requested, this might be an element of a decision to change management companies – if a change is resolved, think of all the above problems happening again. And again. And again.

And I’m not even sure that’s an exhaustive list!

I believe we can all do better, and that you’d be hard pressed to find a strata management company that could guarantee that the data they hold in relation to their portfolio is even 90% correct.

While perhaps 100% correct is always going to be unrealistic, I think we all should be aiming to improve the records we hold and the processes we use to store them to get as close to that goal as possible.

Do you think I’m being pessimistic with the above 90% ceiling of certainty?

Prepared by
Sean McNamara

Author: Sean McNamara