The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A computer glitch told D.C. residents about years-old pothole repairs

Last week, some District residents received emails closing their service requests for pothole repair, years after the repairs were completed. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The email Nicole McEntee received last week from the District government’s Office of Unified Communications caught her by surprise. The agency that oversees the city’s 311 and 911 programs had good news, but it was somewhat confusing.

“Dear Resident,” it began, before informing Nicole that the pothole she’d asked to be filled had been filled. The issue was completed and her case file was officially closed. When had Nicole made that request? On Jan. 12, 2016, more than six years earlier.

My colleague Jura Koncius received a similar email. Her July 24, 2017, request to fill a pothole near her Chevy Chase, D.C., home was completed.

I heard from other readers who were left scratching their heads after getting emails from DC 311 last week, seemingly out of the blue. Many couldn’t remember the specifics of their request. Some, like Nicole, don’t even live in the same neighborhood anymore. She lived near Dupont Circle when she made that 2016 fill-a-pothole request. She moved to Truxton Circle in 2018.

This is a story of how computers never forget. It’s also a story of how computers can only remember so much. The Office of Unified Communications (OUC) told me those potholes had been filled years ago and that residents probably received notice of that when the work was completed. But some issues have multiple requests. And those requests were clogging up the computer system.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the OUC wrote: “We determined that an ongoing data storage cleanup triggered the dissemination of these letters, but that these service requests had been fulfilled in a timely manner by the Department of Transportation within the time frames outlined in the associated service level agreements. We regret any inconvenience this may have caused.”

Basically, DC 311 needed to clear some space in its system. Purging the old requests sent out an avalanche of confirmation emails regarding years-old issues. OUC wasn’t able to tell me how many emails went out.

I guess this falls into a similar category as those stories you hear about letters delivered years after they were first mailed.

Speaking of potholes …

Years ago I followed a crew from the District Department of Transportation as it filled potholes with what was then a new piece of equipment: a truck called a Pro-Patch. It rolled along, accompanied by a team of three who would clean up potholes, spray on a layer of tacky emulsified asphalt, then fill the hole with the steaming asphalt heated to 280 degrees.

It was interesting to watch them at work. The oddest thing I remember is when one crew member told me he occasionally made his lunch in the asphalt, sealing raw fish and vegetables in a foil pouch and letting them steam in the hopper.

Wall of shame

Potholes are annoying. Also annoying: the beep of a smoke detector. I mean, it’s not annoying if it’s actually detecting smoke. In that case, a smoke detector is a literal lifesaver. You should have one — or many — and you should check its batteries regularly.

But when you have multiple smoke detectors and you hear a feeble beep that issues forth approximately every 137 seconds and you don’t know which one it is, you’re likely to be driven mad.

We were actually out of town recently when what turned out to be our carbon monoxide detector went into beep mode. It was our housesitter — well, dog-sitter; our house can take care of itself — who texted us with the news.

After establishing that it was a low-battery warning, we told her to just take it down and disable it. It was a sealed unit so she couldn’t replace the battery.

When we returned home we bought a new CO detector and I went to install it in the same location as the old one: on the wall of the stairway between our entry hall and upstairs bedrooms. That’s when I realized there appears to be no standardization in the world of smoke detector screw holes.

There were already three sets of plastic wall anchors in the plaster: three arranged in a tiny triangle, three arranged in a larger triangle and two arranged in a diagonal line. The plastic disk the new detector was to be mounted on had yet another screw arrangement, so out came a pencil to mark the holes and a drill to make them.

I think I’m good for another 10 years, at which time I’ll probably have to choose a different location, lest I risk making that particular spot even Swiss cheesier.

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