How did Dow computer systems handle February 27 downturn?

by Andy Oram

In the financial world, the big news today is the worldwide drop in stock prices, including the worst performance in the United States since the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. But there seems to be an interesting computer story too. During the tense afternoon in the U.S., Dow computers fell behind and failed to reflect the full extent of stock declines. Apparently, Dow brought some new computers online about 3:00 PM, and within a few minutes the Dow caught up and registered an extra 200-point fall. This, in turn, increased the panic among investors and led to an exaggerated sell-off, although this was probably mitigated by the end of the day.

I can't find much information about this yet, and am relying on a few snippets of online news reports plus an NPR radio broadcast. It will be interesting to hear more details. It sounds as if the Dow computer administrators (who are highly paid, well-trained, and dedicated) had a back-up plan in place and implemented it successfully. But it must have been a horrendous day for them, and the jolt that investors received on seeing the sudden drop could not have contributed to good financial planning.

When we hear more about the computer systems, it may provide lessons for emergency management in a number of areas, including local and national government responses to disasters. The incident shows that information systems are at their most strained--and in the hardest ways to anticipate--just at the times when the public asks the most from them, and needs information most urgently.