Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Lego, Raspberry Pi and computing skills

I’m happy to cheer on the government’s plan to include computer coding in the national curriculum for primary schools from next September. I also have concerns about its chances for success, but I think these could be improved by learning a few lessons from the history of Lego. Yes, those toy building blocks that a lot of us played with as kids. I’ll get to the reason in a while.

Placing computer coding on the curriculum makes sense. We need a population of coding savvy youngsters to lay the ground for computing innovations in the future. And it’s a fair argument that even those who don’t follow careers in IT will benefit from coding, learning to think with a combination of logic and creativity. It will be good for them and good for the UK.

But I can’t help remembering a previous effort to do something admirable in schools, when John Major’s government wanted to ensure that all secondary students learned a foreign language to proficiency. That would have corrected a long term failing in British education; but it foundered, largely because there weren’t enough people with the existing language skills who liked the idea of teaching for a living.

The effort to ingrain computing skills faces a similar barrier; anyone with any degree of expertise can earn a lot more money in a different environment, and they won’t take the stick that is often aimed at teachers by politicians the press. It’s easy to see why secondary schools are struggling to provide decent courses in computer science.

Hopefully, the plan for primary schools will get over this by taking a different approach.  The availability of Raspberry Pi, the tiny single board computer that can be used to explore the basics of coding, should enable unskilled teachers to learn with the first group of children. It won’t require the existing knowledge needed at secondary level.

But you need to make sure the kids want to learn. I listened to an interesting talk at Cass Business School last week, when Alex Klein, founder of start-up Kano Computing, warned against a learning by rote approach that would be no fun and dampen the youngsters’ interest. They are more likely to learn if they can play in doing so.

That prompted a thought about the previous week’s episode of ‘The Culture Show’ on BBC2, which looked at the influence of Lego on architecture. Some of the top architects around the world grew up messing about with with those plastic, clip-on bricks, indulging their imaginations in weird and wonderful constructions, and getting a feel for symmetry and design.

Lego provided a tool for the nurturing of lively minds, and this is what Raspberry Pi can be. I hope that teachers don’t use it as a tool to drill a bunch of dos and don’ts into the kids’ heads, but as something that’s fun. Treat it as they do art or storytelling, something that lets their imaginations run riot. In the long term it can give a generation of red hot computer scientists, and people who can turn creative minds to many other lines of work.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See www.marksay.co.uk

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Risks v benefits in the Care.data row

Privacy activists are giving themselves a big cheer following NHS England’s  announcement that it’s putting the launch of Care.data, the central database of NHS patient records, on hold for a few months. It’s acknowledged that it did a poor job of telling the public about the scheme and their right to opt out, and is now stepping back to do it properly.

It wasn’t just the privacy groups that had protested – the British Medical Association, the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Information Commissioner’s Office had all expressed their concerns. Given a few months, NHS England might take steps that will make these bodies happy. But I doubt if it will ever get the more militant privacy campaigners on its side, as they’ll still be able to make a noise about the more important issue – whether the data can be used to target individuals.

When the data becomes available for research, by public or private bodies, it will be anonymised. But there are some big question marks over whether that really protects people from someone digging into their medical records. There is evidence that if someone really wants to break down anonymised data they can do it by cross-referencing with other data sets; a report by the World Economic Forum has said the ‘triple identifier’ of birthday, gender and postal code is the giveaway for most people.

It’s a scary thought but one that should be kept in perspective. Identifying individuals takes time, and who would want to get at their healthcare data, and what would they do with it? It’s in the interests of the organisations that get access to the data to vet whoever works on it and place some heavy duty security controls in place. There is a risk, but it’s miniscule, and on a par with a lot of others we accept in our lives.
Against this are the benefits of making the anonymised data available for healthcare research, something that most people would understand and go along with. The data isn’t being collated just for the sake of it.

So NHS England could do worse than presenting it as risks v benefits. The more militant privacy campaigners would continue to object because they're concerned solely with the risk. But I expect that with an honest assessment of both the great majority of patients will be happy to part of Care.data.