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Podcast: The Computer Weekly Downtime Upload – Episode 53

In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Alex Scroxton, CW’s security editor, joins Caroline Donnelly and Brian McKenna to talk about the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis, including chancellor Rishi Sunak’s package for the self-employed and how Southeast Asia’s approach has differed from ours. They also talk about using data to govern the public realm

In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Alex Scroxton, Computer Weekly’s security editor, joins Caroline Donnelly and Brian McKenna to talk about the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis, including chancellor Rishi Sunak’s package for the self-employed, and how Southeast Asia’s approach has differed from ours. They also talk about using data to govern the public sector.

  • Caroline kicks the main part of the podcast off, after a bit of collective chit-chat about life under lockdown, with chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak’s package of economic support measures for the self-employed, announced on Thursday 26 March.
  • As Caroline notes, IT contractors are not impressed with a package that does little for them, and discern a dig in Sunak’s veiled reference to self-employed people needing to pay their “fair share of tax”.
  • Caroline first reminds us of the basics: the government will pay self-employed people who earn up to £50,000 a year up to £2,500 a month for three months initially, if the cornonavirus crisis has adversely affected their income. This is modelled on 80% of average monthly profits, based on the previous three years’ tax filings, and comes in the form of a grant. The first payments should come in June.
  • Universal Credit has been made more widely available, too. But, as a story earlier in the week by Bryan Glick, CW’s editor in chief, showed, the online queues for UC have been huge, because of the coronavirus. Also, the Gov.uk Verify identity verification system has been a particular bottleneck. One person reported being told they were number 35,000 in a queue to have their identity verified, with the wait declining by only 1,200 people in two hours.
  • Caroline notes that self-employed people who are not sole traders, but limited company contractors, are limited to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which was not designed with contractors in mind, and may not be straightforward to access.
  • The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) described the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme as a “historic lifeline of financial aid” for the self-employed, but said more is needed to ensure the needs of all self-employed and freelance workers are covered.
  • While Sunak’s latest package is aimed at helping people in the UK through the crisis, in China they seem to have beaten the virus and are sending ventilators to Italy, and other places, and continue to power forward with their massive economy.
  • And so, the next topic of discussion is how China, and Southeast Asia more generally, have approached the coronavirus crisis differently to western nations. Has the Asian approach been “better”? Does it depend on their having a more society-first culture? And how does what has happened bode for the future of artificial intelligence over there and over here?
  • Alex, by virtue of his press trips to China with Huawei, is CW London’s China expert – though Aaron Tan, our Asia-Pacific executive editor, based in Singapore, was earlier and more proximate to the public health crisis story in that part of the world.
  • Brian notes that one of our colleagues, Sebastian Klovig Skelton’s friends received a spoof message, seemingly from the government, saying they had been out of the house three times that day and would be fined. Brian poses the question of whether that is already happening in China, in the CW group Skype chat.
  • On the podcast itself, Alex notes that the Chinese authorities would have little difficulty in tracking a mobile phone from base station to base station. Chinese culture, he notes, is more collective than ours, which is more individualistic, relying on policing by consent, and so on.
  • The conversation then moves to Singapore, where our colleague Aaron is based, and from where, in February, he told the rest of the team about everyday life changing under the shadow of coronavirus. At the time, our minds boggled at the idea of people self-isolating or raiding the supermarkets for toilet rolls and basic foodstuffs. Singapore has also done extensive contract tracing, notes Alex.
  • Alex also mentions an article on Wired that refers to China’s social credit scheme, and how people are being shamed for lying about travel to Wuhan. This practice is particularly prevalent, and sophisticated in Hangzhou, where a year of public shaming is not uncommon.
  • Brian then refers to the testimony of The Guardian’s Beijing correspondent, Lily Kuo, as broadcast on the paper’s Today in Focus podcast. She talks about a green/amber/red app that controls people’s movements, and the lack of transparency with that. She also testifies to the anger on the ground in China at the original response to the outbreak.
  • The conversation then moves on to how a more collectivist culture in China could prove a long-term comparative advantage in respect of developing artificial intelligence systems. “You don’t have a technology without it being a part of the society in which it lives,” says Alex.
  • (Note from Brian: The question of how a more communitarian Chinese culture could cause it to leap ahead of the West in the application of artificial intelligence, while the west is ahead on pure AI research, is explored, with greater specialist knowledge, by David Barker, director of the University College, London Centre for AI in another podcast, hosted by the Financial Times. We also referred to this FT podcast episode in another of ours, podcast 48, when discussing the EU’s strategy for AI).
  • One of the questions that the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis has brought to the fore is that of governing by data, using data – is that a good or a bad thing?
  • Brian draws attention to a feature by Steven Mathieson, recently published on ComputerWeekly.com, Governing by data: Limits and opportunities. While governing by the use of data analytics may be fashionable, and of major interest to Dominic Cummings, what are its limits as well as its opportunities?
  • In a piece that covers a lot of ground – from Estonia to Essex – Steven deliberately avoids Cummings and instead points to case studies where data analytics has been put to good effect.
  • One instance is work carried out by the Essex Centre for Data Analytics, run by the county council, Essex Police and the University of Essex. “Its first project,” writes Steven, “focused on lack of school readiness, something which affected about half of the five-year-olds in Basildon suburb Vange, and which can have long-term impacts on education, income and health.” The outcome of the project was, he writes, that “70% of five-year-olds are now school ready in Vange, taking it from the worst-performing area in Basildon on this measure to the third-best”.
  • Does Steven mention coronavirus in his article? There is a passing reference to the UK’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, but of course healthcare is a data-informed area. Touching on the limits of getting too carried away with data analysis, one of Steven’s sources, Graham Beales, head of business intelligence at the Greater Manchester Health social care partnership, says: “The NHS needs to stop looking for non-existent average patients and start considering the wide range of health interactions people experience, rather than just individual courses of treatment.”
  • Before the podcast moves to a close, Brian makes mention of a development in the ongoing Post Office/Horizon computer system story. Last week, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) decided to refer 39 appeals from subpostmasters to have their criminal convictions quashed to the Court of Appeal.
  • That’s a story by Karl Flinders, who has been on the case with this story since 2009. You can easily access his gargantuan coverage through any of his stories, including this one, How subpostmasters made legal history with biggest referral of potential miscarriages of justice.
  • The core Computer Weekly Downtime Upload team of Caroline, Clare and Brian are taking a break from their podcast labours until after Easter. Happy Easter and stay safe.

          • Download this podcast

Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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