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COP26 reflections, tech sector reacts to Sunak on skills – Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast

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Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna reflect on datacentres and climate change, the tech sector’s reaction to government IT skills investment, and the Post Office scandal story

In this episode, Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna reflect on datacentres and climate change in the light of COP26, the UK technology sector’s reaction to recently announced government IT skills investment, and the latest in the Post Office story, including the recent publication and launch of Mick Wallis’ book, The Great Post Office Scandal.

After some chat about Christmas hoving into view, the team get down to the substance of the episode.

Caroline rejoins the podcast in this episode and fills out discussion of COP26 and the role of IT vis-à-vis the climate emergency from the previous episode.

She attended a fringe event around the COP, and had a whistle-stop tour of Crieff, Edinburgh and Glasgow, hosted by OpenUK a not-for-profit organisation that champions open source. The oufit is propounding a plan to help the global datacentre industry develop new practices and ways of workings that will put operators on a path to becoming carbon negative.

In the episode, Caroline recounts the idea that derelict retail and office spaces could be converted into 5G-connected edge datacentres, which is part of an OpenUK blueprint dubbed “Project Kilt” because of the Scottish locale of the COP.

The repurposing of street furniture, such as lamp-posts and telephone exchange boxes, Caroline talks about more on the podcast. There is also the potential supplementary use of datacentres, including the use of the heat they generate to benefit adjacent buildings, and she cites some Norwegian examples of that, of service to aquatic beasts.

The OpenUK blueprint is still a work in progress, and it is hoped the open source community will collaborate and contribute ideas of their own that will result in new quilt “patches” being added to the “Kilt”, which could also open up local job opportunities for the areas where the edge datacentres come to be.

Tech sector reacts to government skills funding

If the UK is to have a greener and more technologically advanced economy, it will need more people with digital skills. In the next segment of the podcast, Clare details the tech industry’s reaction to the funding for education, and investment in innovation and skilled immigration made by chancellor of the exchequer, and friend of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Rishi Sunak, in the 2021 Autumn Budget.

Funding of £3.8bn was also announced to develop skills across the UK, not just for those of school age, but also to ensure lifelong learning for adults. For schools and colleges, £5bn is being earmarked to help reverse the pandemic’s negative impact on pupils.

The UK tech sector has, says Clare on the podcast, welcomed this funding, but is looking for more structure and strategic planning from the government, as well as still more money.

Upskilling of existing employees is important, and one of the sources in Clare’s analysis, Tech’s reaction to the Budget’s skills promises, says: “In the midst of the ‘Great Resignation’, it is crucial that companies don’t continue to overlook internal talent and favour new talent. The talent war has left many businesses scrambling to poach the right talent from competitors rather than investing in their existing talent. Upskilling existing employees can help address the lack of skills in the short term and can also help to retain talent in the long run.”

Clare refers the listeners, for more analysis, to a feature by one of Computer Weekly’s regular freelancers, Cath Everett, which examines the “great resignation” phenomenon from the perspective of tech workers and their employers, Is the tech sector facing an IT skills exodus?

They who speak of skills must speak also of diversity. Clare refers in the podcast to a new inquiry into lack of diversity in STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] education and professions being launched by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. 

The great Post Office scandal

As well as more diversity in STEM and more workers with digital skills, the UK also needs more justice. It is very hard for ordinary people, without big financial resources, to get justice. The story of the postmasters who were the victims of a massive miscarriage of justice due to a Post Office computer system is an outstanding example of that.

In the week of the podcast recording, a few members of the Computer Weekly team, recounts Brian, went to a book launch at the Law Society in London. This was for The Great Post Office Scandal: the fight to expose a multi-million pound IT disaster which put innocent people in jail by Nick Wallis, a freelance journalist, who has covered the story over many years.

In 2009, Computer Weekly devoted a special issue of the magazine to this story, which is about how an accounting system called Horizon, installed by ICL (and then Fujitsu) had flaws in it – flaws that generated apparent shortfalls in takings in a lot of post office branches. This resulted in more than 700 prosecutions by the Post Office, which has the power of prosecution without recourse to the police or the Crown Prosecution Service.

Karl Flinders has written many stories about this injustice in Computer Weekly and guested on an episode of the podcast in February 2021.

In this episode, Brian talks about the evening event, and refers to the presence there of Rebecca Thomson, the Computer Weekly reporter who broke the story in 2009, having worked on it for about a year. Brian mentions her recollection, featured in Nick Wallis’ book, that the CW team at that time expected the BBC and the national press to be interested in the story – but they were not.

At the event itself, Lord Arbuthnot, one of the politicians who has taken a keen interest in this story all along, said the postmasters have been roundly failed – by the political system, by the legal system, and by the media.

But he did say: “When I was told Computer Weekly had written about it, I knew it was serious.”

Brian mentions on the podcast that 10% of sales of the book go to a new charity that Nick Wallis and his publishers, Bath Publishing, have set up. He also urges listeners to watch a documentary about the case on YouTube, Two decades – the fight for justice.

ITV has commissioned a drama about the Post Office scandal, from Little Gem.

Karl Flinders’ three most recent stories about the scandal are:

Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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