CS 492/692 - Spring 2020 - Let's Solve a Problem

For this class (May 29), I am going to ask you think on the spot about how to solve a current problem that is affecting society due to the introduction of computers. I had one topic in mind that I would really like to hear your opinions on. I am going to expand to allow students to express a preference on three distinct subtopics. I will take a poll May 22 in order to divide the class into groups, each examining one of these topics. I will aim to have all three subtopics covered, for breadth.

Topic 1 (my original vision): Computerized systems devised by non-computer scientists and then imposed on users with no alternatives for conducting business.

Examples: the Quest system for enrolling in courses; the Concur system for professors to provide receipts from research travel for reimbursement; the Common CV system used by professors to input their academic records when applying for government research grants; Air Canada's system to book a flight and get a boarding pass.

Problems: interfaces are often clunky and non-intuitive; tasks that used to take 5 minutes with a paper and pen form now take inordinate amounts of time; tasks that were easy to offload to an assistant are no longer so.

Other problems: organizations requiring input from users expecting users to have additional time to use the computerized system to provide all the information (often less easy to simply offload to a staff support person); increased burden for busy people. Errors arising because system was poorly designed and does not easily accommodate all the needs of users. Constrained choices for users (who could have scribbled in their comments on a paper and pen form).

Origins of problems: even if supported by technically-minded designers, the system requirements were devised by non-computer-scientists, thus creating a dramatic burden for the user.

Topic 2: The current pandemic and the emerging burden on existing computer infrastructure.

Problem: While society as a whole is largely used to employing computer technology for personal and professional tasks, with everyone operating at home without accompnaying face to face options, there is an increased demand on the use of the Internet, on various networking solutions such as Google docs or Zoom. The functioning of all of these systems is at times challenged, beyond their earlier functioning.

Origins of problems: perhaps systems designed with a smaller number of concurrent users in mind.

Topic 3: The current pandemic and the abandonment of the digitally divided.

Problem: A certain percentage of the population, especially in developed countries, has become used to relying on computerized solutions for much of their day to day functioning (banking, entertainment, connection to friends and family). Some of the most fraglie segments of society (the elderly, those with disabilities) may be especially challenged because they operate with alternate options outside the computerized solutions (using cash and visiting tellers, seeing family in person rather than through online channels).

Origins of problems: Governments and industry expecting computerized expertise from the more challenged segments of society. Rapid demand for an online presence from those who cannot easily acquire that presence. Especially during the pandemic where some of the most disadvantaged are asked to be out of direct contact with younger family members or with public organiztions such as libraries that could have assisted, this group is made to feel even more stressed and abandoned.