Parler v AWS, digital schooling, ambulance data – 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 purgation of Parler, the traumas of digital schooling and the South Central Ambulance Service’s use of data to support their operations during the Covid-19 pandemic

In this episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna discuss the purging of Parler from the internet, the overwhelming nature of pandemic-induced digital schooling, and the South Central Ambulance Service’s pressing of data to support their operations during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

Caroline got the podcast going with the tale of how free speech-touting app and website Parler became a tech industry pariah, cut off from the cloud and app downloading platforms.

Since its inception in September 2018, Parler has sought to position itself as an alternative to mainstream social media sites by providing a safe haven for public figures who – as a result of their words and actions – have found themselves banned from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the like. (US President Donald Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter on 8 January.)

Parler and Amazon Web Services (AWS) have been engaged in a war of lawsuits in the US, following the cloud giant’s banishment of the Alt-Right talking shop, and Twitter alternative. Apple and Google have also exiled Parler from their app stores. Free speech is one thing, incitement – plain and unmoderated – to violence, is another, and has led to this multi-pronged suspension.

Caroline talks us through this dark industry bunfight. Parler has made a selling point of its zero to light moderation, attracting people who want to say what it is beyond the pale to say on other social media platforms. It has been offline since Sunday 10 January 2021, in the wake of the attack made on the Capitol building in Washington by Trump supporters on Wednesday 6 January.

This analysis by Caroline contains much detail about the legal arguments touted back and forth by Parler and AWS – whose lawsuit details allegations of the disturbing threats it claims forced it to pull the plug on the stricken social media site.

No other cloud hosting provider is touching Parler, and it would take quite some time to build its own cloud infrastructure. Plus, there are alternative venues for the sort of content it has specialised in hosting. If nothing else, the case shows the wisdom of not putting all your eggs in one cloud basket, and, indeed, the power of the cloud today.

As a side story, Caroline notes that, as covered by Computer Weekly’s security editor, Alex Scroxton, ethical hackers have gathered and published data about Parler’s users.

Digital schooling

The podcast team moves from one group of people who, arguably, have had too much access to the internet to people who have, too many of them, too little: schoolchildren.

Clare talks about the fallout from the UK government’s sudden decision, on Monday 4 January, to close schools in England, as part of a countrywide lockdown, leaving many parents either unprepared or unable to provide children with online schooling. The situation in Wales and Scotland is similar.

Clare flags research from Ofcom estimating that between 1.14 million and 1.78 million children in the UK don’t have access to a laptop or device for home schooling, and 7% of households can only access the internet through mobile connectivity.

The government has said it will be providing up to one million children with devices, but even that won’t be enough.

Caroline gives a flavour of what the reality of home schooling is like for even those children who do have access to sufficient technology; and the unusual pressures teachers are having to cope with, including when Zoom chats go off-piste.

The team discusses further the difficulties many parents will be facing, again, juggling their own working from home while home schooling their charges. The word “overwhelming” came up, both in Clare’s article and in the team’s conversations.

BI in the pandemic

Going from one very important aspect of the pandemic to the eye of the storm itself, Brian then shares the content of an interview he did with leaders of the business intelligence (BI) team at the South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS) NHS Foundation Trust.

Simon Mortimore, assistant director for business information at the SCAS and his colleague Vivienne Parsons, specialist business analyst, explained to Brian, he recounts, their use of Qlik BI software to quickly analyse data, and join up internal and external data stores during the pandemic.

They’ve been using Qlik software – QlikView and QlikSense – since 2010, and their business intelligence programme has come into its own during the coronavirus crisis. Their partner in this is Differentia Consulting.

The ambulance service covers a geographical area from roughly Milton Keynes through Oxford down to the south coast. Last year, it featured in a reality TV documentary, on the W channel, Inside the Ambulance – Coast and Country. This starred paramedic crews from Portsmouth and Oxford, Brian’s adopted hometown. He confirmed that he watched four episodes of the show as part of his diligent research for the piece. The series was recorded just before the pandemic got going and aired late in 2020.

(The podcast team has discussed healthcare and technology not a few times, including one episode where they reviewed a Casualty/Holby City crossover TV event).

The SCAS BI team discovered some surprising patterns from their data analysis during the waves of the pandemic, and Brian talks about a few of those on the podcast. Details about the consumption of the service’s data are in the case study, South Central Ambulance Service drives out of Covid data fog with Qlik.

One of the external data sources the SCAS team uses comes from Ordnance Survey. In another interview with Computer Weekly, Chris Chambers, head of the Geospatial Commission’s Public Sector Geospatial Agreement (PSGA) at Ordnance Survey, confirms that the South Central Ambulance Service is a user of its data, and that relations are strong.

Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade.

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