Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Service management in the rural sector

I've just got back from a trip to India, and have been thinking about interesting ways in which our recent work on service management tools and methodologies could be applied to the rural sector. One thing led to another, and I'm now talking about things that I had (sadly) not considered in a long time...So there is a humanitarian dimension to most computer science research, but we don't seem to pay enough attention to it (note this is not "development informatics"). In any case, I'm giving a talk on the topic, and the title and abstract below might jog some thinking.

TITLE: Computing for humanity: Have computer scientists neglected their social responsibility?

Abstract: Like any other discipline, computer science imposes social obligations on its practitioners. Many facets of this (the obligations and the feeble efforts we have made to meet them) are well-known. We know that computer science can offer solutions to the challenges of climate change and environmental sustainability (the UoW Carbon-Centric Computing Initiative provides research leadership on some aspects of these). We know that low-cost computing technology can make a wealth of otherwise difficult to obtain information available to under-privileged sections of society. We know that computing technology underpins many of the scientific and engineering innovations that contribute to a better quality of life for many. But not all. For a very large proportion of humanity, computing research and its outcomes have impacted life in minimal ways or not at all. I will argue that greater emphasis needs to be placed on computing research and development that targets this section of humanity (under-privileged sections of society within our national borders, as well the very many who live elsewhere). I recognize that many before me have argued similarly, but I will differ by outlining two concrete propositions. First, I will argue that this shift in emphasis raises substantive research questions, taking us into territory that we would have otherwise ignored. I will illustrate this proposition by using examples from areas that I am actively engaged in (business process and services management systems, supply chain management technology, decision support technology and so on). This suggests that computer scientists of all hues will find research inspiration from this shift in emphasis. Second, I will suggest that computer scientists learn from some other disciplines that have been more pro-active than us in setting up NGOs that take practitioners/academics/students to settings where their skills can be directly used to help the disadvantaged ("Medicins sans Frontiers" is one good example, "Engineers without Borders" another). The talk will be deliberately provocative, and is intended as a call to arms.