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Bridges' officials claimed failed tech 'transformational'

Simon Bridges' officials claimed failed tech scheme would be 'transformative'

Phil Pennington, Reporter

Ministerial briefings show officials told Simon Bridges, when he was Transport Minister, that a Silicon Valley company would transform New Zealand.

a recent photo of
Simon Bridges

As Transport Minister Simon Bridges called a failed multi-million dollar tech project a revolution. Photo: RNZ / DOM THOMAS

Mr Bridges called a multi-million dollar project the firm was involved in, a revolution.

But it failed, and any benefit to the taxpayer remains unclear. The NZTA unit Connected Journeys Solutions, which approved high-tech projects, was closed down in March this year after flouting public sector controls.

Mr Bridges had five briefings about American computer game-maker Machine Zone (MZ) in 2016 and 2017.

He met its top executives in early 2017.

Six months before this meeting, MZ chief executive Gabe Leydon told a US conference it would use New Zealand to showcase the firm's massive capacity to crunch data, used up until then only to run computer games.

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"So what we came up with is, we are going to run a country in real time instead of a game," Mr Leydon said.

"So we came up with this idea to network the entire public transportation infrastructure of New Zealand."

Mr Leydon by then had already met with the New Zealand government's chief information (now, digital) officer, who is also head of the Department of Internal Affairs, plus with top transport officials.

Those officials told Mr Bridges that the tech company's work held huge promise.

"MZ will be transformative in its application to transport, logistics, online advertising markets, health (patient care), energy, retail and a range of other markets," their October 2016 briefing said.

NZTA's vision was for MZ to manage a huge data stream that software developers could tap into for free, to build online apps.

The briefings show Transport Agency promised MZ it would ensure the US company got access to key local council and private sector players.

The agency in 2016 was already using MZ to collect data from hundreds of buses on Auckland's streets and from Auckland highway cameras.

MZ platform 'offered endless possibilities'

Officials told Mr Bridges the two trials were highly successful.

"MZ has now advanced that technology to create the world's first live data ecosystem. Data is published once to the platform within the ecosystem and becomes streaming, live data with near-infinite scalability, massively high throughput, and ultra-low latency.

"This platform is the one already in use in Auckland... The possibilities are endless for how this platform can improve New Zealanders' mobility."

The 'bots' built for Auckland had "already changed the way that they are running the city", Mr Leydon said in July 2016.

Mr Bridges met Gabe Leydon on 31 March 2017.

That same day, NZTA endorsed a confidential contract to use MZ's data platform for a year to run transport app trials in Queenstown and Auckland in a $5.5m project.

MZ got the work directly, with no public tender; a 2018 investigation concluded no public sector sourcing rules were broken. A subsequent inquiry into NZTA high-tech contracting has still to report back.

An Auckland company Gladeye got the minor work of building a customer interface for cellphones.

Mr Bridges launched the Queenstown app in August 2017, saying: "Enabling the utilisation of improved transport information alongside technology like [this] is a real game changer."

"It's not about public or private transport, it's a revolution where all the transport options are at your service," he told media.

MZ's chief technical officer was at the Queenstown launch and six months later told a California IT conference that MZ was "coalescing streaming data feeds from all transportation data sources into a single live and reactive open data channel for the entire country of New Zealand."

In the briefings, Mr Bridges was told MZ had plans to build a data centre and product development office here, but these would require "significant investment" from within New Zealand.

However, by mid-2018, NZTA staff in Queenstown [https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/396549/taxpayers-hit-from-govt-partnership-with-us-videogame-maker-machine-zone

had big concerns about MZ] and by last December its data platform had been abandoned.

The Queenstown Lakes District Council has no record of any of the technology run on MZ's platform still being in use.

NZTA refused to tell RNZ the number and cost of its contracts with MZ, citing commercial sensitivity.

The agency is now spending another $19m building its own transport data platform.

The five briefings to Mr Bridges mentioned data security and privacy risks only once, when officials said they would prepare a communication plan about 'open data' and the benefits of having global partners.

In March 2018, the new Transport Minister Phil Twyford announced MZ was one of 40 groups on the country's first Future Transport Leadership Group. Mr Twyford's spokesperson said NZTA had appointed the members, and added the group no longer existed.

Simon Bridges has declined an RNZ request to talk about his interactions with the Silicon Valley firm, aside from an interview he gave in August.

MZ has not responded to requests for information and comment.

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