Auckland Council's property value website crash — an offline problem

UPDATED with comments from Auckland Council acting CFO Kevin Ramsay as site stuffed for second day.

UPDATE: Scroll to end of story for comments from Auckland Council acting CFO Kevin Ramsay — who comments on the site being stuffed for a second day, and the viability of various solutions put forward by readers.

I was one of thousands who tried to access Auckland Council's website as new property valuations were released yesterday.

The frenzy crashed the council's whole site for a period during the morning, and its property search function for most of the day.

On the face of things, it looked like a classic scenario where scaleable cloud computing should have filled the breach. 

After all, one of cloud computing's key selling points is that you can have computer power and web hosting on tap for brief but predictable surges (after, say, you send out a big marketing email or, for example, the day you put new rates online for a city with 473,451 occupied dwellings, many of whose owners are fiercely curious about the size of their CV rise).

But my second thought was: it was annoying for me not being able to access my property's new CV for several hours. But it was just personal curiosity. There was no pressing need for me to see it inside a day (owners who want to place an objection have 30 days). Do I really want my rates dollars spent on a web server splurge just so people can have instant gratification and snoop on neighbours' valuations the day new CVs are released?

No, but then again some people in the process of listing a house would have suffered genuine frustration yesterday. And of course the council's whole website being swamped offline for a while was sub-optimal.

It seems there could be a technical issue to address here. Auckland Council has a modern website but the system for retrieving property valuations dates back to Auckland Regional Council days, says John Holley (who was general manager of operations for the ARC from 2007 to 2010 when it was subsumed into the new super city council).

It ha also been suggested (see Comments after yesterday's story) that the CV data and relevant APIs should be opened up so multiple sites could host it – and perhaps devise a few cunning ways of presenting or analysing it.

Good ideas. But the immediate problem of yesterday's overload could have been solved offline.

Later this week, Auckland Council will snail mail every property owner a hardcopy of their CV.

Why not do that first, then put the new CVs online the next day – that would have dampened the web frenzy. It's also just polite to let people know their new CV before it's made public.

And while we're on this theme, new rates bills were sent out last week. Why not just send one letter including both the new CV and rates? Politics maybe. As every, technology problems aren't just about technology.

UPDATE: Auckland Council CFO responds
Auckland Council acting chief financial officer Kevin Ramsay says issues continue on day two of ratepayers' CV frenzy. A GIS viewer workaround is still in place, and the property search function difficult to access at times due to heavy traffic.

How heavy?

Mr Ramsay tells NBR the council site usually serves 80,000 to 90,000 page impressions per day. Yesterday was close to one million.

The council did anticipate a surge but not of that magnitude, the CFO says.

If he could re-live this week, would he have put extra web server capacity in place, or just lived with a day or so of overloading?

"In hindsight, we would have built in more capacity, he says. "Obviously there are security constraints, such as firewall support, but we would have built it."

Where do the council's servers sit? Mr Ramsay says his organisation works with several third parties, which he declines to name.

Was Mr Holley correct to say the property search on the council's website dated back to the ARC era (that is, 2010, before the creation of the super city)?

"Yep, that's part of the issue," Mr Ramsay says. "We still have some legacy systems."

Some of the systems used by the former Auckland, North Shore, Manakau and North Shore councils are still being amalgamated, "which has caused some of the problems."

When will all the disparate ICT systems be meshed together?

There's still another three or four years of amalgamation to go, the CFO says.

New valuations are being sent by snail mail this week, with delivery taking place over several days.

Why not do that first, to avoid web server crush?

Mr Ramsay says legislation requires CV information to be made available to everyone on the same day (pre-internet, that was via giant books accessed through libraries). NZ Post simply wasn't equipped to deliver all CV notices on the same day, he says.

And what of suggestions that the council open up its valuation data, so all-comers could host it? (And, no doubt, some would come up with new ways of presenting and analysing it, too).

The CFO says it's important for the council to control the data when it's first released because it sets rates, and hosts the 30-day objection process.

Down the track, he's open to the idea of opening it up.

I think NBR commentors, and those on social media, are talking about full open access, including APIs that would let them manipulate the data. However, in a narrower context, Mr Ramsay noted commercial outfit Quotable Value got access to the new CV data from day one. QV offers basic information free but its website has also  suffered overloading problems.

Not rocket science
Cloud computing commentator Ben Kepes was unimpressed by Mr Ramsay's explanations.

"Building scalable, fault-tolerant and reliable websites and applications is no longer rocket science," Mr Kepes told NBR, perhaps subconsciously channelling Ben from The Block NZ.

"Cloud computing vendors and other creators have shown what best practice can do. It is frankly disappointing to see ratepayer funds spent on a seemingly subpar service."

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