Podcast: The Computer Weekly Downtime Upload – Episode 52

In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly and Brian McKenna talk about the Covid-19 coronavirus and what it means for retail, how data can be analysed to combat it, and its implications for datacentre modernisation programmes

In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly and Brian McKenna talk about the Covid-19 coronavirus and what it means for retail, how data can be analysed to combat it, and its implications for datacentre modernisation programmes. 

Before getting into the meat of what is an exclusively coronavirus-focused podcast, Caroline and Brian share with listeners how their first week of remote working – along with the rest of the Computer Weekly and broader London TechTarget team – went. 

As with other podcasts, the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload is being done remotely, so the experience of listening will be a tad different. But we are determined to keep going in the midst of the current public health crisis.

The Computer Weekly team had produced a lot on the coronavirus’ impact on technology during the week of the podcast recording. In Clare McDonald’s absence, Caroline picks up on the impact on the retail sector, while Brian focuses on data. Caroline also speaks about the implications for datacentre expansion and upgrading projects.

Caroline gets the main movement of the podcast going with the story of how Ocado had to pull its website amid the coronavirus shopping frenzy. The looting of bricks-and-mortar supermarkets of toilet roll, dried pasta and much else besides has, along with people self-isolating, forced more grocery shoppers online. This, in turn, has had negative consequences.

This time of year, the likes of Amazon scales back some of its employee base – but not this year. In the US, Amazon is recruiting 100,000 extra workers to cope with the coronavirus-induced online shopping surge. The online retail giant plans to hire a further 100,000 full- and part-time staff in its US fulfilment centres to ensure it has the capacity to cope. The company is also committing to invest $350m to raise the hourly rates of pay for its retail workers in the UK, Europe and the US by £2, €2 and $2, respectively.

There has been some possibly good news for an important section of Computer Weekly’s readership – IT contractors. HM Treasury has confirmed that the introduction of the IR35 tax avoidance reforms to the private sector will be deferred until 6 April 2021 as part of a package of meas­ures to support businesses through the Covid-19 outbreak.

Caroline comments that this will give private sector organisations breathing space to adapt to the reforms. For IT contractors as such, however, it seems there will not be a huge benefit to them because many of the decisions made to dispense with their services were taken in October/November 2019. And even if those decision are reversed, would contractors want to go back to those companies? Indeed, Caroline says many will still go ahead with their retirement or indeed emigration plans once the crisis has passed.

Moving from the real-world business implications of coronavirus to the data connected with the virus itself, Brian recounts how he took a briefing last week from Julie Kae, executive director and global head of corporate responsibility at Qlik.org.

Following the Ebola crisis of 2014-16, Qlik joined some other companies – including GE, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Merck – to form the Private Sector Roundtable to provide a collective organisation for NGOs, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to engage with.

Kae gave as an example of the software donation, an app that Qlik built to render the data locked in WHO PDFs more analysable. These PDFs are lengthy reports on how countries are positioned with respect to health security, and they embody months of work by 30-40 people.

With respect to coronavirus, this sort of work will help with resilience for the future, said Kae. Live data science on the virus and its spread is more the area of the likes of the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine.

(In the UK, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE): Coronavirus (Covid-19) is the main port of call for advice).

Brian then highlights two stories by CW’s managing editor (technology), Cliff Saran: Microsoft and Google join forces on Covid-19 dataset and Covid-19: Three technology areas that CIOs must address.

Six organisations – the Google Cloud-owned Kaggle data sci­ence community, Allen Institute for AI, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, Microsoft and the National Library of Medicine – have collaborated to release the Covid-19 Open Research Dataset as part of an initiative to open up datasets to help research­ers combat the coronavirus.

In relation to how the virus is impacting enterprise IT, Cliff’s second story is based on Gartner advice to CIOs. The analyst firm’s report, Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak: short- and long-term actions for CIOs, recommends that IT departments ensure remote working is fully supported.

Cliff writes: “In the report, Gartner said that in organisations where remote working capabilities have not yet been established, CIOs need to work out interim solutions, including identifying use-case requirements, such as instant messaging for general communication, file sharing/meeting solutions, and access to enterprise applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM), while reviewing all security arrangements to ensure access to applications and data is secure.”

Caroline starts to close out the podcast with one of her stories: Covid-19: Uptime Institute advises operators to suspend non-essential datacentre projects.

A 16-page advisory document published by the Uptime Institute datacentre resiliency think-tank sets out the steps that datacentre operators of all types – from multi-tenant colocation facilities to private datacentres and server farms housed in mixed-use facilities – should take to protect their staff during the pandemic.  

It is worth seeking out the full document, says Caroline. It has advice about running datacentres with as few staff as possible, and also keeping those staff safe and well. Datacentre workers have quite a high average age, and the current crisis is highlighting the skills shortage in this field.

The crisis is also having a significant impact on manufacturing supply chains for datacentre equipment.

For context, this was our first go at doing the podcast remotely. Do stay with us through these difficult times. We will bring in other colleagues as the weeks of isolation go by, too. We know you are WFH, too, and still have a job of work to do. Stay safe.


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Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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