Gender pay gap, undersea datacentre, digital mapping – Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast

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In this episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna discuss the gender pay gap, undersea datacentre experimentation and digital mapping

The Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast has returned for a new series as the autumn conference season begins. The team first reflect on how this year’s season of unnaturally extended virtual conferences will compare to the real-world conferences they have attended before.

Conference attendance is often like cramming for an exam or an immersion course in a foreign language, say the team. It is often useful to get a sense of productive distance from the day to day of normal working life in the UK.

After this natter about being back for the new “term”, they get into the substance of the episode.

Clare kicks off with a descriptive account of a Diversity workshop that is part of the build-up to the Computer Weekly Diversity in Tech 2020 event, in partnership with Spinks, on 1 October 2020. The workshop is part of a weekly series that would normally be part of the real-world event.

The workshop, held on Thursday 17 September, was about the gender pay gap. The background to this one is that the Government Equalities Office (GEO) and the Equality and Human Right Commission (EHRC) have suspended gender pay gap reporting regulations for this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. That means there will be no expectation for employers (with more than 250 staff) to report their gender pay gaps for the 2019/20 reporting year.

The gender pay gap is the average pay of all men and all women, regardless of role. For context, Clare mentions a 2016 article she wrote that put the gender pay gap in the tech sector at around 9% in the UK.

The workshop was chaired by Suki Fuller, founder of Miribure, who was representing TLA [Tech London Advocates] Women in Tech, founded by Sarah Luxford. Clare mentions how “riled” Sarah was by the decision to suspend gender pay gap reporting this year.

The team go on to discuss mounting evidence that the pandemic is affecting women more than men economically. For instance, in the workshop, Tobi Oredein, founder of Black Ballad, said working mothers are more likely to be disrupted than working fathers while working from home because of patriarchal social conditioning.

The next workshop in the series, on Thursday, is in conjunction with the Tech Talent Charter, and is about making organisations more inclusive for black employees.

Subsea datacentre

Changing tack, the team then move on to talk about datacentre location – specifically the undersea datacentre that Microsoft submerged off the coast of one of the Orkney Islands in 2018. The datacentre, Northern Isles, has now been brought up from Neptune’s watery realm, barnacled, but with its servers, buffered in dry nitrogen, intact.

As Caroline writes in her story on this: “Microsoft has concluded that underwater datacentres are a reliable, practical and energy-efficient alternative to traditional land-based server farms, following the completion of a multi-year research project on this topic.

“The software giant shared news of its Project Natick underwater datacentre experiments back in 2016, with the first phase of the initiative focused on determining the feasibility of building underwater datacentres, powered by offshore renewable energy sources.

“This paved the way for the second phase of the project, which saw Microsoft deploy a 40ft prototype facility, 117ft under water, off the coast of the Orkney Islands in Scotland during the spring of 2018.”

Caroline has been tracking the fate of this subsea datacentre vessel as part of her general interest in datacentres being located in novel and imaginative locations.

The inaugural Computer Weekly Downtime Upload Podcast, in January 2019, featured a description of a datacentre in a Catalonian church, the home of the MareNostrum supercomputer.

In this podcast episode, Caroline explains the context of Microsoft’s subsea adventures, which are governed by the supplier’s need to increase cloud datacentre capacity in ways that will not adversely affect the environment. And the wider picture is that the world’s co-location hubs are getting more and more full, says Caroline.

There will be more research coming of the back of the project, and if more such subsea datacentre vessels are launched to be sunk, perhaps datacentre tours will become more thrilling, she adds.

Digital mapping

The question of whether or not the Microsoft datacentre appeared on a map leads Brian to turn the conversation to digital mapping, as it is fed by location data.

He links together two recent interviews. One was with John Hoopes, a software developer at Ordnance Survey, who is an advocate for the OS’s Data Hub, launched in July 2020. The other was with Stuart Bonthrone, CEO of Esri UK, who was majoring on how geographical information system software can be used to help solve the housing crisis.

Brian flags two projects that have been using Ordnance Survey data for academic and social benefit. One is the National Library of Scotland, which is facilitating comparison of historic and bang up-to-the-minute maps using OS Maps API layers. The other is the London Solar Opportunity Map, which is a joint activity between the Greater London Authority and University College London. This enables the visualisation of where solar panels could go – right down to individual buildings – for the optimum economic and social benefit.

Giving some context to the second interview, Brian gives a quick portrait of Esri, founded by Jack Dangermond in Redlands, California in 1969. Esri UK is run autonomously in what is an unusual corporate structure.

Esri is prominent in the GIS field, and its software essentially brings geographic data together in one platform so it can be analysed and modelled. Esri works with Ordnance Survey in the UK, which supplies some of its data. And Esri software, in turn, is deployed in the OS database.

Bonthrone says Esri’s software can be used to help speed up housing developments in ways that take account of environmental and social needs.

One example it gives is how its geospatial technology used machine learning and AI to identify 13.5 million square feet of unused space in the City of Westminster.

The team then close the episode by reflecting on their own use of digital maps, which have almost entirely displaced traditional paper maps.

Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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