Last Wednesday the British Computer Society's (BCS) awards at the Meridien Hotel in central London marked the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the annual celebration of British achievements in IT innovation. In an age when Silicon Valley and Seattle seem to steal the majority of the limelight, it's heartening to be reminded of the rich history of IT applications that originated in the UK and to see that not all of the brains have yet been drained by the US.
At the inaugural ceremony, back in 1973, Manchester University's Computer Science Department was presented with a semi-retrospective award in recognition of the pioneering computing work it had been engaged in for 25 years.
The actual project that won the attention of BCS was the development of a mainframe-class computer, the MU5, which executed high-level language programmes written in Fortran or Algol. The project was supported by ICL and some of the university's developments were incorporated into ICL's 2900 commercial computer.
The following year, the award went to the National Physics Laboratory for the development of packet switching - whatever that is. It's amazing how many of these early awards went to projects which, in a similar way to packet switching, we either take for granted as part of the rich backdrop of the industry or think of as "emerging" technologies today. For example, there was British Telecom's Prestel (1980), arguably the crude fore-runner of the World Wide Web as we see it today; Cambridge University's Cambridge Ring (1981): an early Lan standard; and Logica's Logos (1982), a continuous speech recognition system. So the list goes on.
This year's award nominees were no less inventive with Barclays, HM Land Registry, the Armed Forces, the Open University and BT's Martlesham Labs joining lesser known names like Oxford Brookes University and Quality Systems and Software.
Barclays was showing its pilot project Endorse which offers trusted third-party services for electronic transactions. Unlike the SET specification of Visa and Mastercard, Endorse handles more than money - in fact in the pilot scheme money only enters the system in an implied sense because it deals with bureaucratic form-filling, primarily the dreaded Income Tax Return.
Under the scheme, a customer of Barclays can be validated by producing a passport or other "real world" credential to receive a smartcard containing a personalised cryptographic key. The card slots into a holder which fits into a standard floppy disk drive and converts it into a smartcard reader.
Once equipped, the user can then be validated with the Inland Revenue using Barclays as the intermediary, allowing the user to submit their tax return electronically.
The Land Registry has been working on ways in which conveyancing can be made easier - and, hopefully, cheaper - by bringing together information from 12 bodies, including Ordnance Survey, the Law Society, Local Government, the Land Registry and the Valuation Office. Effectively, the Bristol-based pilot scheme brings together all of the information relating to the search every solicitor performs when processing a property purchase and automates the process.
Two projects were provided by BT's research labs. One was a new release of Wireplay, a protocol that speeds interaction for networked gameplaying, and the other is the Intelligent Personal Assistant (IPA), a communications, information and time manager. IPA "learns" the preferences and interests of its user taken from patterns that it records from their use of Email, Web browsing and making meeting arrangements. In this way the system can ultimately prioritise Email messages, organise meetings for a preferred time of day and find information that may be relevant to the user's needs.
To help the visually impaired to use the Web, Oxford Brookes University has developed a Web browser, the Brookestalk Web Navigator, that uses speech synthesis to read out Web page headings, links and text paragraphs.
It can also use information retrieval techniques to summarise a Web page.
The Royal Hospital Haslar has developed its Telemedicine System for the Defence Medical Services sector of the Armed Forces. This uses satellite communications with digital cameras and Email to allow field medical staff to get expert advice on treatments for casualties. Before the system was developed, the patient would have to be airlifted to the nearest medical centre at a cost of about #25,000. The development team claims that the system costs about #32,000 but has already reduced the need to move patients to treatment centres by 66%.
Doors is not just a pun on Windows, it is a tool for storing and managing project information in an intelligent, structured way, developed and marketed by Quality Systems Software. Elements of a project are stored as objects within modules and these can be cross-linked to establish relationships.
The objects can be requirements, specifications, test methods or contracts all interlinked so that, if a detail in the project is changed, the system will flag all affected processes that might need to be additionally altered.
The Open University has been running its offering for a year. It is a teaching module (M206) which already has 5,100 students - making it the biggest IT course in the world. Even though the course is for beginners it introduces object oriented principles, based on SmallTalk, at an early stage and uses Internet and CD-ROM technology as part of its dissemination structure.
With such diverse projects the BCS judges found it difficult to make a final decision but the Open University, Quality Systems Software and the Land Registry walked off with the prizes. A special "highly commended" award was made for the Royal Hospital Haslar team.
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