Inspirational IT

Nigel Shadbolt, BCS President

2006 was a very successful year for the BCS but, as new President Nigel Shadbolt explains, 2007 will see even more progress as the Society undertakes to engage and inspire the public on the subject of IT and computing.

Nigel Shadbolt The BCS charter states that one of its principal objects is: 'to advance knowledge and education of computing for the benefit of the public'.

However we can only really be of benefit if our subject and its practitioners engage with the public. This challenge is a hugely important one for the BCS.

It is a commonly heard complaint from the science and technology community that the public does not understand nor appear to care much for the disciplines that have transformed the modern world.

Researchers from the medical and life sciences point to the vaccines that have eliminated previously fatal diseases and the drugs that have extended our life expectancy.

Physicists, chemists and agronomists have all made enormous contributions to keeping us warm, well and fed. Engineers have literally built our world - translating concepts from science into workable and practical systems. Despite this, many scientists and engineers feel unappreciated and undervalued.

If anything the problem is even worse in IT and computing. These are subjects that are perceived to be dull, uninspiring and lacking in excitement. A number of reasons are usually advanced for this state of affairs:

(i). The public just doesn't care and really isn't interested. They would rather curl up and feast their minds on reality TV. When they do come into contact with IT then it is via school curricula designed to extinguish any excitement in the subject.

(ii). It is the fault of the media. Their agenda does not include science and technology, and IT is particularly hard to convey with its abstract ideas and concepts.

(iii). It is our entire collective fault - the IT and computing community has simply not invested time and energy, resources and imagination in the task.

(iv). It is the fault of our technology and subject matter. We have succeeded in building an IT infrastructure that is rapidly becoming ubiquitous and pervasive - and as a consequence unremarkable.

Whatever one thinks of these reasons the undeniable truth is that our subject has a poor public image. We have falling levels of undergraduates coming to study computing at our universities and there are few role models that serve to inspire a younger generation of researchers and practitioners.

As Charles Hughes wrote last year our profession is often seen as culpable when it comes to high-profile IT failures. We have not been succeeding in our public engagement mission.

This failure of public engagement is potentially catastrophic for any IT-centric knowledge-based economy. BCS believes that IT is a vital part of our society and culture that cannot flourish without the support of the wider community.

We are therefore committed to involving the public in learning about and debating UK IT, and equipping researchers and professionals with the skills and opportunities to communicate their knowledge.

So let us consider again the potential sources of the problem.

Is it a general public who is indifferent to technology - bored by what we have to say? The evidence suggests that there is a huge appetite for science and technology that is made exciting and accessible. We can look at the sales of popular science and technology books, or the success of TV series dealing with invention and innovation.

It is a matter of whether audiences are engaged, excited or inspired by what they hear, see and read. As we already noted, for many their first experience of IT is through the school curriculum. Here there may be an urgent need to review how our subject is taught and what is taught.

Is the media the problem? We have to understand the nature of the journalist's and producer's jobs. They are looking for accessible, interesting content - they often complain that our material is not made sufficiently exciting for their audiences.

It is a problem that we collectively have to do something about. We are not working hard enough to promote our subject at the right levels. We need strategies to make our engagement much more potent and effective.

Perhaps our technology is the problem. But we sit in a world of amazing, stunning science and technology. The trouble is we don't take the time to explain how remarkable the unremarkable is.

We build systems that operate at staggering levels of scale and complexity. They use technologies that a few years ago existed only as laboratory prototypes. They use software systems that represent tens of thousands of person years of human ingenuity and endeavour.

There is so much here to convey because it is always a human story of personal and collective triumphs and tragedies, insight and genius, heroic achievements and failures. So it looks like the challenge lies with us. How are we to begin this programme? We certainly need to do more work to understand the nature of the problem. We then need to develop a range of sustainable initiatives that address the problems at a variety of scales and levels.

To this end we have recently recruited into a senior position within the BCS David Evans, whose primary role is to develop our public engagement strategy. We have already identified a number of urgent requirements.

We will need to foster media engagement - cultivating our own media talent. We will have to develop messages, stories and events designed for the media. There is certain to be a challenge in our schools - working with them and other bodies to present the excitement and opportunities of our subject.

I believe that we need to evangelize the concept of computational thinking. Professor Jeannette Wing, currently head of Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Computer Science, argues eloquently for this position and for the fundamental importance to everyone of a skill set that 'means more than being able to programme a computer'. [1]

Computational thinking 'requires thinking at multiple levels of abstraction'. She presents the case for these skills to be made available to all university students. This is so important because more and more of our subjects and disciplines, jobs and vocations require computational tools and methods.

It is because our subject is so pervasive that we also need to understand the particular challenges of engaging with communities and markets who have their own strong requirements of our methods and capabilities - these range from health care and defence through to economic infrastructures and transport.

All of this is going to need our collective energies. We will need to work in concert with our sister professional bodies and learned societies, research councils and charities that have also struggled with the challenge of public engagement.

Within the science and technology arena excellent work is carried out by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Institution, the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the IET, EPSRC, Welcome Trust and many others. We will certainly look to share best practice and collaborate where we can.

We will take advantage of other large-scale initiatives within the BCS. For example, we will co-ordinate with our Professionalism Programme in IT, the work we are doing on the core
competencies of our own chartered qualifications such as CITP and our thought leadership programme where we look to engage with a wider community of influence.

My upcoming year as president of the BCS coincides with the Society's 50th anniversary. It will be an anniversary that will reflect on the enormous achievements of our discipline. It will be an occasion to look forward to the potential for our subject in the years to come. It will be a perfect moment to address the issues laid out in this article.

The theme for my year will be public engagement - IT for all, if you will. BCS very much hopes that it will be able to recruit your energy and enthusiasm in this endeavour.

Reference
1.Wing J (2006) Computational thinking. CACM, 49(3), 33–35.