Ideas for good: ice cream vans and sourcing nurses

To say that the first tranche of BCS members’ feedback on our new ‘Computing ideas for a better society’ project reflects variety would be an understatement.

The forward-looking aspect of our 60th anniversary celebrations has reaffirmed something I already knew - BCS members have opinions. There is a fascinating breadth to them.

We have divided the kind of ideas we are looking for into three main strands: Utopian visions, where we are looking for folks to push the boat out and dream; Practical suggestions, looking at what annoys you right now, and asking you to suggest what could we do about it; Re-imagining - a starting from scratch type approach, asking what we take for granted that we could rip up and start again.

Here are some of the suggestions so far.

Utopian visions

Susan Rainbow foresees that, as the car industry moving towards automation, there will (and should) be a future where that automation gives freedom to millions of elderly and infirm.

Toby Leheup has given though to revisiting the whole approach we take to politics... she has done a full post for us.

Balakumaraa Puvanendran asks if computing can help a blind person to view or feel an object without touching - if computing can help a deaf person to hear or feel a song or a speech - if computing can help a farmer to see the weather forecast or climate for the next three months in his mobile device - if computing can help a fisherman to view the weather forecast or how the sea would be for the ten km radius for the next five hours while going to sea or while in the sea in his mobile device - if computing can help to a child to become a genius in a chosen field - if a computing product can help a person to get relief from stress or anxiety. Plenty to be going on with there - ’that is really helping society’, he says.

Practical suggestions

Sallyann Cossey suggests something to please all fans of frozen dairy treats: ‘Please can someone design an app that shows you where your local ice cream van is at any given time? You should also have the ability to tick a box, so if the ice cream van gets enough ticks he knows it would be worth his while to drive down a particular street.’

Petra Gallagher goes much bigger, suggesting an international common code of ethics and morality for IT professionals and IT organisations.

Ann Jones addresses an issue that irritates many - media coverage of computing issues. She writes: ‘The Royal Statistical Society has made a point of having a team of people to respond and educate people to all the bad statistics that hits the news media, in fact they ran some training in Holyrood for Members of the Scottish Parliament and their staff in basic statistics. This promotes the name of RSS.’ She suggests a similar misinformation-busting approach would benefit BCS.

As debate rages on the NHS, its funding and efficiency, Matthew Flynn suggested, ‘an “Uber” type app for agency nurses. The NHS spent £3.6billion in 2015 on temporary agency staff. A huge amount of this money didn't go to the staff concerned but to agencies. If hospitals and NHS trusts could access the pool of temporary nurses via an app (designed and perhaps owned by some social enterprise, BCS, or even a collective of NHS trusts) then it would reduce the massive amounts of money draining from the NHS. Nurses could register, linking through the app via an API to their record on the professional register of nurses. They could perhaps bid for the work like Uber drivers do - or just make themselves available and be paid a flat rate - no less than they get from agencies now but without the huge agency fees. The app might take a fixed rate of fee - say £1 per hour or so. Huge money savings would be possible and it might well be more efficient than the agency system.’

Olivia Tan MBCS wants us to look at the interfaces when we do your online shopping. ‘For example,’ she writes, ‘Tesco’s interface isn’t amazing, the products are just listed and you have to scroll through loads of items to find the one you want. If you could integrate VR into the process then you could type in the postcode of your local supermarket and go there virtually, walk around and fill up your trolley - you already know the layout of all the aisles and where all the products are located so it would be really easy.

Plus, as she says, ‘you would not have to contend with all the mothers’ meetings and pushchairs getting in the way - the supermarket in the VR world would be empty! And you could have virtual assistants to help you out. This would be really good, especially for those who are elderly or disabled because they will get the authentic shopping experience without having to struggle with bags and transport etc.’

Warming to the retail app theme, Olivia also notes the problems when buying furniture: ‘it’s sometimes hard to picture what the item will actually look like in your home, or whether the shelving unit you’re buying will really fit perfectly into the corner of the bedroom.’ She suggests ‘an app that allows you to take a photo of the room, automatically work out its dimensions (or you type them in) and then search for an item you want’ displaying ‘the ones with the correct dimensions for your room, from all different stores like Ikea, Homebase etc. and then you can buy them through the app.’

Jon Ronicle draws attention to the FinTech arena as a very hot topic at present. He suggests BCS forming a working party to become thought leaders in this sphere of industry, including in architecture, application design or delivery.

Re-imagining:

Juliet Nickels works in education, and has a special interest in assessment. She says: ‘Computers offered so much in terms of re-imagining what assessment could look like, yet we are still stuck with the technology that has been effectively unchanged for thousands of years - pencil and paper, and written tests, which have to be marked by someone. In the world of social media, business and retail, computers have enormous power and applications not possible before (for good or ill). Some of that technology would be incredibly useful in educational assessment - tracking behaviour, providing virtual environments, responsive assessment, detailed, fine-grained information, and comparisons of large amounts of data. I'd like to see something like a global science assessment system which incorporates the best that computers have to offer in terms of presenting, recording and handling information. There is currently no way to do this in any valid, reliable or manageable way. Science is a global citizen entitlement, yet it is suffering in status because the assessment of it is so poor.’

Finally, Dave Brooks, comments along the lines of what we may consider a fundamental issue, especially with the Institute’s stated goal of making IT good for society. ‘We need to ask why,’ he says. ‘We as a society are so interested in what we "can" do with technology that we forget to think about what we "should" do.  This is a philosophical and ethical question, but also speaks to strategic alignment and the effective use of resources.

Feel inspired?

Any of those ideas push your buttons? Or inspire further thoughts? Share your ideas.

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The Echoes blog showcases the best of the conversations on the BCS Voices debate platform.

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