• Is the Gender Non-binary law the next Y2K Challenge for Database Administrators?

    October 3rd, 2017 by admin Categories: Blogs

    Proposed Gender Identity Changes: What Dreams (or Nightmares) May Come.

    In these modern times of identity politics, gender identity and “otherness” sensitivity, California SB179 seeks to address this concern, allocating time and resources to fleshing out sexual identities. In January of this year, the bill was introduced to amend the California Department of Motor Vehicles drivers license application to add an option of “N” or “X” for “non-binary,” in addition to the traditional “M” or “F.”


    Courtesy of Weekly World News http://weeklyworldnews.com/

    As a (human) race we’ve historically taken comfort in binaries: I/O, Male/Female, good/evil, beginning/end, matter/anti-matter, and a deviation from a binary system conjures up a few growing pains . . . or catastrophic explosions in that last example; perhaps an apt metaphor.

    However, despite any moral or philosophical quandaries, there are some serious technical aspects to consider. The last time we added digits to a programmatic need of that size was the infamous Y2K conundrum. Programmers needed to change the formatting of dates in data records because most systems only recognized a two digit field for dates. This was done in order to keep programs from reverting to 1900 instead of 2000.

    It was the information age’s first “skynet moment,” and the future of the newest information epoch most certainly risked a chaotic death. It permeated our zeitgeist, and we half-heartedly joked that the end was near. A Nike commercial, of all places, encapsulated our fears in this holiday television spot:


    This fervor turned the party of a lifetime into the worry of a civilization. Instead of popping bottles of bubbly, and singing along to Prince’s “1999” in the moments leading up to the new millennium, an audible chorus of hand wringing rose above the cheers.

    Now, the State of California seeks to add additional gender designations to its rolls. Currently SB179 seeks to add an “N” or an “X”  to its gender designations, conjuring many concerns. Is  SB179 simply a DMV initiative, or the mere beginning.  As Ben Christopher of CALmatters pointed out, “California law would go a step further by requiring nonbinary options on all state identification documents. In doing so, California would be the only state to provide this designation in the country.” (Read his article HERE).

    Questions emerge. Would this be another Y2K? Is this just the beginning of gender designation changes? After all, the University of California has six different gender designations. And, of course, what’s this going to cost taxpayers. Inquiring minds want to know.

    These concerns were echoed by John Thomas Flynn, Techleader.TV founder and host, who was at the forefront of the IT millennium, serving as State CIO during the Y2K fire drill. Flynn recalls the ordeal stating, “We inventoried every single state IT system in the late 1990’s as the first step in our mitigation efforts. It was the first time it had been done. We identified over 3,000 systems and that was no mean feat in and above itself, let alone fixing the actual code. Whatever the code fix is required for the gender issue, if it expands beyond DMV licenses or birth certificates to any and all state computer systems with a gender identifier you could be talking real money to fix it.”

    The State of California DMV punted when asked to comment on SB179, saying that they wouldn’t comment on pending legislation. As of the posting of this story, the legislation only awaits the Governor’s signature to become law.

    Former State Parks CIO Alan Friedman, and longtime, loveable state IT curmudgeon weighed in with a few salient points, most notably he observed, “While moving to a  non-binary gender code could affect a number of state IT systems, the change does not have a drop dead date like Y2K did. Since any deadline for a gender code change would be legislatively based and is thus somewhat artificial, the deadline might ultimately be subject to renegotiation.   In the worst case,  while failure to comply might subject a state entity to an administrative penalty,  it would not have the potential to create a catastrophic system failure like we faced with Y2K.”

    However, our neighbor to the north Oregon has already implemented a tertiary designation; an “X” following in the footstep of Ontario, Canada and the District of Columbia. The entire implementation cost Oregonians a collective $30,000, and caused no known issues. The Oregon DMV Systems Manager had this to offer, “I would guess Y2K was in the high thousands or tens of thousands [of changes] category. Y2K required several changes in the number of data fields used in tables and applications. The gender change was just adding a new data type (X) to a series of existing tables and applications.”

    Comforting from an IT standpoint, no doubt, with one massive caveat: Oregon is 1/10 the population size of California. So multiply everything by 10; that’s $300,000 for the DMV alone. Add to that a perhaps significant portion of the other 3,000 plus systems that Flynn cites.

    And then Canada re-enters the picture. As the CBC reports, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is implementing a non-binary gender designation on their passports beginning in September 2017. The entire population of Canada is upwards of 38 million, but approximately 28 million have passports. Again, it’s only the passport system, as opposed to the multitude of systems that perhaps California may need to overhaul.

    Perhaps these experiences in other jurisdictions offer a glimmer of optimism, that things might not be all that bad. We have the blueprints in both recent and “distant” history. Maybe this particular bid for political sensitivity may not queue the California government IT death rattle.

    And cheer up, it could be worse. Facebook has 58 gender options


    By Christopher Millard, TLTVnews Reporter


    Anonymous Commenting is Welcome. To have your name or website appear with your comment, fill out the form below. All Comments are moderated to prevent spam. Thanks for joining in the discussion!