Podcast: The Computer Weekly Downtime Upload – Episode 55

In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna talk about real-time video call transcription, as offered by OtterAI, the loan charge double whammy afflicting some contractors, Green Flag’s digital transformation, online food delivery developments under lockdown, and using AI to save coral reefs

After a bit of chat about rewilding, in this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna talk about real-time video call transcription, as offered by OtterAI, the loan charge double whammy afflicting some IT contractors, the “Uberisation” of Green Flag, online food delivery developments under lockdown, and using artificial intelligence to save coral reefs.

  • The UK has been under a hard lockdown since 23 March. Or at least we humans have been. Because our wild furry and feathered friends have not. The team share a few anecdotes about rewilding, and about how domestic animals seem to be dealing with having humans around all the time. What will happen once things return to normal or near normal? Will there be post-lockdown carnage on the roads? Will dogs and cats miss their now oddly present human companions? Time will tell.
  • Brian gets the main matter of the episode going  till harping on an animal theme. He talks about OtterAI, a speech-to-text transcription tool that most reporters on the Computer Weekly team use. The company that developed the software is led by its founder and CEO Sam Liang, who played a leading role in the development of Google Maps. Last week, it announced a real-time, interactive transcription functionality that works with Zoom and Otter for Teams.
  • Our esteemed freelance colleague Adrian Bridgwater provides a clear summary of this new capability of Otter in an Inspect-a-Gadget blogpost on ComputerWeekly.com. But he also, says Brian, traduces the otter itself as a narcissistic show-off: “Typically spending most of the day scrambling for grubs, performing underwater somersaults and occasionally posing for cute pictures, this member of the Lutra genus has a poor office attendance record and is rarely seen at press conferences or in meetings.” Adrian begins his tirade against the otter with this statement: “Nobody knows why voice-to-text transcription app company Otter is called Otter.” On the podcast, Brian relates how Sam told him that he sees the otter as friendly and collaborative, and endowed with a high IQ and a good memory. Hence the name of the company.
  • The team talk a bit about their own experience of using Otter as journalists, and about the possible benefits of the real-time transcription functionality.
  • This week’s Computer Weekly ezine is led by Caroline’s investigation into how some IT contractors are being shot by both sides. The title of her piece (on the website) is Loan charge contractors face double whammy of life-changing repayment demands as past loans recalled. It is a 5,000-word piece that embodies five months of investigation. Caroline touches on it in the podcast, calling it “a tangled web” that she’s been untangling. It narrates how IT contractors who are already under pressure from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to pay life-changing tax bills relating to their past involvement in loan remuneration schemes now face calls to repay the original loans, as well. 
  • Two organisations, trading as FS Capital and Felicitas Solutions, have written to contractors in recent months to demand the repayment of loans previously paid out to them for work they performed over the past decade or so. These loans were typically paid to contractors via schemes set up by third-party, offshore employee benefits trusts (EBTs), in place of a conventional salary, and positioned as a means of legally minimising participants’ employment tax liabilities. At the same time, the recipients of these letters are facing sepa­rate demands from HMRC to repay the employment taxes it claims they avoided by engaging with these trusts between 9 December 2010 and 6 April 2019. 
  • Getting the article published has also liberated Caroline, for the time being, to tackle other subject matter. She has joined forces with CW’s managing editor (technology), Cliff Saran, to dissect Green Flag’s digital transformation in Green Flag waves farewell to Oracle legacy with cloud-native revamp. The roadside breakdown rescue service’s managing director, Dean Keeling, and its technology and delivery lead, Shakeel Butt, spoke to the CW duo about the business transformation and technical side of its bid to be “the ‘Uber’ of rescue”. Like Uber, the company doesn’t own many physical assets, but instead has an operating model based on IT and data. It sees an opportunity to “move into proactive vehicle maintenance, such as allowing motorists to connect to garages where they can get a service, MOT or upgrade their vehicles”. But its technology infrastructure was based on a legacy Oracle database.
  • The new technical architecture is cloud-native, based on standalone microservices and is application programming interface (API)-led. One principle driving the microservices-led development of the core platforms at Green Flag has been to use a service from Amazon Web Services (AWS), if one exists. 
  • While online disrupters such as Uber, Airbnb and Deliveroo are inspirations for Green Flag, online food delivery itself is developing under lockdown. Clare moves the podcast on to talk about a couple of online food delivery stories, one of which is about innovation, the other is about one digital native who has cost her parents dear.
  • The Independent had a story about how you can now order takeaway food directly from stories inside the Instagram app. This could, says Clare, support local food businesses. It’s also been a long time coming, she says, since much of Instagram is pictures of food anyway.
  • Clare has also found a story on the BBC about a shop-till-you-walk toddler who ordered a string of onions from Morrisons using her father’s smartphone. Team opinions about this infant prodigy who racked up a bill way in excess of the cost of the actual onions were divided.
  • Brian brings the episode to a close with another nature story, Keeping coral reefs healthy with AI, by Computer Weekly’s Asia-Pacific executive editor Aaron Tan. This is a story about how the Sulubaaï Environmental Foundation, a Filipino non-profit organisation dedi­cated to protecting marine life, is seeking to improve the health of a coral reef on the island of Pantagalan in the Philippines. It has fabricated an artificial reef alongside the natural reef and installed underwater video cameras to monitor what is going on in the reef, the marine life passing by the reef, and so on. 
  • Accenture and Intel are providing the analytics and chips for the project. Previously, scientific project like this would have used human divers, which is difficult and expensive, and who might scare away the fish. The camera system in this project counts and classifies marine life as it passes by using a deep learning classification model that has an accuracy level of about 93% during lab tests.

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Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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