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Panic Monday: What's Your Backup Plan?

Last month, a Skype outage left millions of people all over the world unable to make Internet calls. Hundreds of remote TypeWell transcribers were unable to reach their clients. At the same time, hundreds of deaf and hard-of-hearing clients were sitting in classrooms and meeting rooms, unable to connect with their transcribers, and subsequently missing out on conversation.

Welcome to “Panic Monday.”

Skype logo broken into piecesSkype attributed the outage to a larger-than-usual configuration change that left users unable to sign in or connect.

When an urgent technical issue arises — an expired software license or a malfunctioning keyboard — most transcribers would just reach for the phone (or an app like Skype) to contact a supervisor or colleague for support. Remote IT staff often use instant messaging to resolve quick tech issues, because they can monitor multiple chat conversations simultaneously, making it more efficient (and less intrusive) than email or telephone.

What made the Skype outage particularly difficult for remote TypeWell users was that it took down their primary line of communication. Sure, they could switch to a different voice-over-IP service like Jabber or Google Hangouts — and most users did — but even when you have such a backup protocol in place, how do you notify other parties when it’s time to switch to Plan B? Can you be sure that the back-up applications are installed, updated, and ready to go?

How do you notify other parties when it's time to switch to Plan B?

Incidents like Panic Monday can easily disappear from one's memory. It was an unpleasant day all around, but you made it through. Life goes on. If you were directly affected by the outage, maybe you spent the next few days thinking about what to do differently. If you are a business owner, perhaps you resolved to update your service procedures handbook. But now that a few weeks have passed, where do those plans stand?

Procrastination is the enemy of contingency planning. When you juggle numerous demands, your priorities shift day-to-day. (It’s kind of like that “go bag” that gets packed halfway when there’s a tornado warning, and then shoved back into a closet the next day.)

Messy desk full of scraps of paper with handwritten notes and coffee stains

Technology Triage

As an agency owner or disability service coordinator, you can strengthen your program’s resilience by planning ahead and training your staff to respond proactively to situations like Panic Monday. Organizations that deliver real-time services need to assess which technologies and processes are mission-critical, and then focus on keeping those elements running reliably. Just remember that, as a popular TechSoup article about technology planning says, "You don’t have to do it all every time.”

  • Maintain an inventory of your technology assets. “Having a current inventory positions you to begin a technology planning process when you are ready.”
  • Keep a troubleshooting log. “If the first step in resolving a technology challenge is looking through the troubleshooting log, you may be able to follow the resolution notes and avoid having to call a contractor.”
  • Stabilize. “Do you need to be able to send and receive e-mail? Is your Web site a prime mechanism for reaching your constituency and achieving your mission?”

Stabilization doesn’t require a huge outlay of cash or resources. It means determining which projects can wait, while replacing things that are necessary for your organization’s stability. It means getting your backup plan in place, knowing who’s in charge of which systems, and developing a schedule to train staff and revisit the backup plan.

Hands of someone writing at a desk next to a laptop

Your Strongest Technology Assets are Probably People

You might read the words “technology inventory” and think of a spreadsheet filled with computer tag numbers and service dates. While that is an important piece of the technology planning process, remember that your own people and their collective knowledge can be invaluable. What do your transcribers and support staff already know, and what special skills do they have? What do they want to learn?

Dedicate 30 minutes at your next staff meeting to brainstorm about tech-disaster scenarios and solutions, and you may be surprised at how simple (and inexpensive) some of the strategies can be.

  • Your organization might have a “No texting with clients” policy, but are there ever situations where it is appropriate for transcribers to shoot a quick text message to a student — for example, when services are immediately suspended because of a Skype outage? Can you utilize a service that will push app notifications or text messages to your students or clients in case of an emergency?
  • During last month's outage, the transcribers at West Virginia University switched to an alternate voice-over-IP client when Skype went down, but the quality of the audio calls was so poor that they still had difficulty providing adequate communication access. In that case, they switched to Plan C: “In an emergency, make sure the student has a way to voice record the class and a secure place to upload the file [to be transcribed after class]. The tablets we issue to our students have a voice recorder app. They also have the option to upload the files to our office Google Drive, which transcribers can access.” Other suggestions for secure file sharing include Filelocker or Dropbox.

What are some of your organization’s contingency planning tips? If your work was affected by last month's server outages, what did you learn or change as a result?

photo credit: Skype killer is licensedby Tsahi Levent-Levi under CC BY 2.0.

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Kate Ervin

Kate became a TypeWell transcriber in 2004 and began training new transcribers in 2009. She has served as TypeWell's Executive Director since 2011.

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