Czech programmers wrote a website worth 16 million euros for free?

Czech programmers wrote a website worth 16 million euros for free?

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At the end of January 2020, Czech programmers developed a ticketing portal for the right to use Czech highways on a pro bono basis in two days. The Czech Ministry of Transport initially allocated 401 million Czech crowns (about 16 million euros) for the development of this portal, but the enthusiasm of the community made it possible to save a huge budget.

Based on the results of the hackathon, the created portal is planned to be handed over to the citizens of the Czech Republic. The Minister of Transport has been dishonorably dismissed and further tenders will be conducted in an atmosphere of transparency and accountability to citizens.

This account of events was given in the retelling of the publication CNews, or at least that is how it was interpreted by readers.

This stunning story captured the minds of the entire former Soviet Union, repeatedly circulating on social networks. Unfortunately, however, the original CNews feed - probably unintentionally - omitted and distorted a number of key details, so the original situation was very peculiarly distorted.

The purpose of this post is to close that gap.

Disclaimer

Truth, like mushrooms, multiplies by spores.

This post was formed in the course of a long fruitful discussion between the author (who visits Prague and Brno periodically, but every time briefly) and Alexei Samorukov, who permanently resides in the Czech Republic. Fragments of the discussion itself cannot be cited on Habra because of the profanity used in it many times, but the author leaves references in the post, so the reader can get acquainted with the primary source.

In the end, it is O.K. to agree to disagree.

Disposition

The speed limit in the Czech Republic is 110 km / h on the roads and 130 km / h on highways (depending on the region) and they try to stick to it. However, there are almost no speed cameras on these highways (but I didn't tell you).

Naturally, the construction - and maintenance - of such highways costs a lot of money. The Czech Republic long ago came to the position that the cost of maintaining the long stretches of intercity expressways should be passed on to those who use them - the motorists. In order to have the right to enter the highway, the driver must obtain a special paper pass in advance and put it under the windshield.

To date, such passes are issued in specialized stalls, as well as at post offices and many gas stations. The maintenance of that infrastructure costs a certain amount of money for the budget, but the most important thing is that it is quite inconvenient to search those stalls every time and stick the passes on your windshield (and then take them off again), especially if you are a tourist or drive around infrequently.

The Ministry of Transport of the Czech Republic, motivated by its desire to simplify the lives of citizens, decided to introduce an electronic system for issuing passes. The electronic pass with a limited validity period would be connected to the license plate number and there would be no need to get it somewhere or print it out.

It was the development of such a system that provoked a huge scandal.

Unfortunately, as is usually the case with the gossocha, the description of the scandal cannot be complete within the limits of the technical aspects of the implementation alone. We will have to close our eyes, hold our breath and immerse ourselves in the current political realities of the Czech Republic in order to create the right atmosphere.

Make Czechia Great Again

According to the 2017 election results, the prime minister of the Czech Republic is Andrej Babiš, founder and permanent leader of the center-right populist ANO party. The party's name is a backronym for the Czech version of the word "yes.

Before his election, Babiš was a businessman - one of the richest men in the Czech Republic. In 2011, Babiš founded his own political party, which came in second place in the elections just two years later, behind only the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), founded in 1990. Four years later the ANO won first place in the parliamentary elections with 18.7 percent of the vote, allowing Babiš to occupy the seat of prime minister.

Some media like to compare Babiš to Donald Trump, which gives some (of course limited and incomplete) insight into this figure.

Earlier in the same year, 2017, Babisch was found guilty of corruption. The Agrofert division of the company he controlled received a subsidy of as much as 2 million euros from the ERDF, which, according to the investigation, was due to fraudulent manipulation of the division's ownership. An investigation conducted by the European Anti-Fraud Office confirmed the corrupt nature of Babis's actions.

The fact that Babis had illegally received the exorbitant sum of two million euros led to a vote of no confidence in ANO by the Czech parliament and the lifting of political immunity, but after a re-election the prime minister's immunity was restored and ANO and ČSSD formed a coalition government.

Portal

As part of the agreement with ČSSD, Vladimir Kremlik was appointed minister of transportation in April 2019.

One of Kremlik's first initiatives was the creation of the ill-fated online system for issuing highway passes. Kremlik claims that he sent the TOR for the creation and maintenance of the system to five different IT contractors, from which he subsequently chose the cheapest - the Polish outsourcer Asseco. This bid amounted to the notorious 401 million crowns (400.3 million to be exact), or 15.8 million euros at current exchange rates.

In the course of this event, Kremlik violated all accepted rules of organizing the government contract. He did not organize a formal tender, did not publish the TOR and unilaterally decided to select a contractor for the entire 400 million contract, which, at first glance, seems a bit excessive for this project. Minister Vladimir's reputation as Babish's protégé did not help either, to put it bluntly.

That would be OK, but in the history of the Czech Republic there is a huge example of corruption in IT called Opencard, and looking at what was happening, the citizens immediately realized what was going on.

Opencard

The Opencard municipal card was essentially an analogue of Moscow's "Troika" with the correction that Prague implemented a system of card access to transport, libraries and discount programs 5 years earlier than Moscow. However, the implementation of the Opencard system was actually a failure by Prague.

Tenders for Opencard implementation were held with numerous violations. The issuance of each card was organized through a left "passthrough" company, the municipal money flowed away in many unknown directions. The implementation of Opencard cost the capital a fabulous $62 million; as a result of a multi-year investigation, several civil servants received suspended sentences, and the Opencard system was eventually replaced by the Lítačka card, which is still in use today, while the end of Opencard's life is approaching in 2020.

There is an anecdote. "Today, at 8 a.m. Moscow time, the United States of America launched a single nuclear strike against the People's Republic of China. According to rough estimates, there were no casualties."

Similarly, by the usual standards of the Russians (and citizens of some neighboring countries) the "trifle" that took place is not even considered a waste, but the Czech Republic by any standards is an order of magnitude smaller than Russia, and they had enough that when they saw the attempt to make the highway pass system without a tender, the voters revolted.

Top Secret

According to the official plan, the system itself was supposed to be ready in the first year, but the contractor (the Polish Asseco) took responsibility for supporting and operating it until 2024. It is similar to smoking unknown weed without knowing difference between effects.

The implementation of the system was to include a website, mobile applications for popular platforms, payment reporting, clearing, data protection systems, and a call center.

More accurately, this is how Kremlik justified himself in media interviews when the scandal was already raging.

The terms of reference for the system were not published for reasons that are unclear. A logical assumption of the opposition was that the TOR was "loaded" and implied a huge multilateral kickback (up to 80% of the designated amount). The Ministry of Transport blurted and blushed, the minister was silent under the sights of the TV cameras. OSINT

The Hlídač Státu project was able to come up with one possible adequate reason for not publishing the TOR.

The fact is that there are categories of vehicles that have the right to travel unobstructed on highways. Such vehicles include police cars, ambulances, emergency services, and cars of special services employees.

Naturally, the TOR defining in one way or another the criteria for determining whether a vehicle belongs to the special services' fleet could not be published.

At first glance, this concept sounds logical, but it is only at first glance. In today's digital world, the main weapon of the intelligence services is OSINT - "open source intelligence" - information analysis using Google, image search and today's nearly endless open data sources.

It would be a colossal folly to impose a special travel regime on secret service vehicles. Passing the cars of the intelligence services on the open highway without having the necessary receipts under the windshield would obviously reveal the identity of those cars to any observer armed with binoculars or a video camera.

Accordingly, in the era of paper receipts, all special services paid the fare like a sweetheart; hence, it is unclear why any new rules should have been introduced in the process of digitalization.

All in all, this explanation for the non-publicity of the TK did not stand up to criticism. It was at this point that Tomáš Vondráček announced a hackathon to create an analogue of the future badge system.

In agile development methodologies, a methodology for estimating the cost of a task called "planning poker" is often used. Its essence is as follows:

  • Team members are given number cards (regular poker cards from "twos" to "eights" can be used);
  • The product manager describes what problem they want to solve;
  • After a round of questions and answers, each of the team members "privately" bets the card corresponding to their personal assessment of the problem's difficulty;
  • All bids are opened simultaneously;
  • The highest and lowest bidders discuss the problem among themselves and come to a consensus.

The story's main character, Prague entrepreneur Tomáš Vondráček, owns the outsourcing company ACTUM Digital. The company, judging by its Linkedin profile, employs something like a hundred and fifty people who are responsible for a variety of fronts of work: digital marketing, web development, consulting and even the Internet of Things.

A misunderstanding of these facts has spawned a whole wave of speculation in Runet and the surrounding area.

Vondrachek's task was by no means to give the Babish government a free finished project.

In fact, Vondráček played a round of planning poker with the Ministry of Transportation.

The ministry had previously privately estimated the cost of the project at SEK 400 million. That estimate seemed extremely high to Vondráček (and, apparently, to the hundred programmers who came to the hackathon).

In order to provoke the Ministry of Transport into an open dialogue, Tomasz organized a completely open event with the participation of the press, during which a prototype of the system was created. The prototype could be observed live, so that the Minister of Transportation could not claim that his political opponents had underestimated the cost of the development.

The prototype is only a small part of the working system, but its value lies in the fact that it allows you to further extrapolate the cost of the full development. Obviously, if the implementation of, say, 10% of the task takes 1500 man-hours (about 9 months of work of one programmer), and the final assessment of the entire project - 16 million euros, then such an amount of total funding needs serious justification.

Of course, at this point the question could arise, which part of the overall project is the resulting prototype. But here the ball was already in the ministry's court. If for some reason they believe that what has been done - not 10% of the problem, but, say, 1%, then let them describe the terms of reference and show the remaining 99%, because 100 professional programmers gathered at a hackathon did not see this 99%. This is the whole point.

Once again, the purpose of the hackathon was not to create a working production system. Such a system, if he wanted, Vondrasek could have made and presented to the government on his own, without involving hundreds of programmers who did not know each other, in fact, by advertisement.

A working system, in fact, didn't work out. Vondracek, an experienced IT manager, says openly in every interview.

the portal needs to be debugged, it lacks documentation, it's not connected to the government databases it needs; a number of necessary components must be developed by state agencies themselves; the portal was deployed in the Irish Microsoft Azure cloud for the convenience of development, which is not the best choice for an internal Czech state system; there are issues related to the quality of the hastily written code, support, copyright and licensing of the written code, and so on.

All of these claims can be heard in fierce Russian-language discussions. If it was really about commissioning a finished project that "meets all the requirements" (as formulated by CNews), these claims would have been completely fair, but no such task was set.

Consequences

Responding to public pressure, Andrej Babiš announced Kremlik's resignation as Minister of Transport - less than a year after his appointment in April 2019.

Almost immediately, the news broke that Kremlik would be appointed Deputy Minister of Transportation in place of Karl Havlicek, who had been appointed minister. In Russian (and Czech), such a reshuffle cannot be called "dismissal" or "resignation," and can only be described as "demotion.

The news was also met with indignation, but there has been no clear reaction from the authorities. At the time of publication of this post, the newly minted head of the department, Havlicek, is avoiding the question of whether and in what capacity Kremlik will remain in the ministry.

Contractor Asseco, for its part, terminated the contract, explaining it as a reputational risk.

Babiš also announced that an investigation was planned. What exactly will be investigated and against whom is not clear at the time of publication of this text.

Who is to blame?

Here the author is forced to enter, together with the reader, into the shaky ground of assumptions.

Where exactly was the allegedly excessive amount of money lurking in the estimate for the system?

It could have been put there by the minister, counting on a kickback, or by the contractor, counting on the (fair) incompetence of the minister of transport in IT projects. Here the publication of the ToR (possibly with small bills) and estimates from Asseco, or at the very least a closed audit by a qualified expert IT center at the Ministry of the Interior, would shed light on the situation.

Neither ANO nor the opposition seems to be interested in this. ANO has already appointed Kremlik as the "shooter" and would like to forget about the incident as soon as possible; the opposition is quite satisfied with the opportunity to remind Babish of the incident in the future until the end.

If the ToR was indeed classified at the request of the intelligence services, would it be reasonable to include the criteria for determining the intelligence services' machines in the ToR for the civilian IT system? It is obvious to us now that it is not - but even the Russian intelligence services, with their multibillion-dollar budget, do not seem to have heard of OSINT; let alone the Minister of Transport of the Czech Republic?

Yesterday, the new Minister of Transport shocked the public with a new revelation: it turns out that another system will be developed, which will track and store all movements of cars in the country. Thus, in case of suspicion of preparing terrorist acts the Czech special services would be able to analyze the traffic over the past days.

Hour by hour does not get any easier.

Perhaps the functionality required for this was the very secret part that the Kremlin was so reluctant to publish. It is roughly equally likely to be a creation of the new head of transportation in order to straighten the reputation of his agency.

The Secret Service BIS has already rushed to disassociate itself from all the initiatives of the Ministry of Transport, but, again, the question is who takes the word of the secret service.

Whether such a component was in the plans before publicity began, or whether it was invented hastily in order to somehow justify the Kremlin's actions, is impossible to ascertain.

The only thing that is clear is that we would like to wish good health to Tomasz Vondracek.

Regardless of further success of Czech citizens in the fight against the multi-headed hydra of corruption, the author would also like to hope that the Russian media, which selects interesting foreign news items, will treat the facts more carefully and investigate the issue in detail, including with the involvement of Russian-speaking industry professionals.

In this case, you could find them even in the Czech Republic, which is particularly depressing.

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