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How prisoners failed to put 1901 census online.

THE failure of a plan to use prisoners to computerise millions of records, preceded the chaotic launch of the online version of the 1901 census, a report revealed yesterday.

The prisoners' role was noted in a National Audit Office report on the website's January 2002 launch, which ended in disarray when pre-publicity generated an unexpected and overwhelming demand, forcing the site's withdrawal.

The report detailed how the transcription of census returns - 32.5 million records including those of the future Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and Charlie Chaplin - was subcontracted to Enterprise and Supply Services, a division of HM Prison Service.

The NAO noted, 'During 2000, the Public Record Office (the client) and QinetiQ (the principal contractor) identified that Enterprise and Supply Services was not making sufficient progress in transcribing the census returns - the Prison Service had other priorities for prisoners' time, such as providing them with information technology skills to increase their likelihood of employment and reduce their chances of reoffending.

'Despite consultation at ministerial level, it was established that Enterprise and Supply Services could not complete the data preparation to a quality standard and to a timetable that would not prejudice the rest of the project.'

One report suggested that whenever a person's employment was listed as 'prison warder' or 'gaoler', the inmates entered the word 'screw'.

Enterprise and Supply Services resolved the situation by further subcontracting the work - costing it pounds 1.8m - to companies based in India and Sri Lanka as well as the UK.

The NAO report also detailed how the PRO's plan to put the census online came to grief.

The PRO planned a website which could cope with 1.2 million hits a day.

But the January 2, 2002, launch attracted far greater media coverage than anticipated, and by midday the site was taking 1.2 million hits an hour.

Five days later the site was shut down, and full access was only restored by the following November.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 15, 2003
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