The software community needs to seriously rethink its contribution to society's problems, said a speaker at Thursday's fourth Software Engineering Colloquium, in Cape Town.
Wesley Diphoko, executive director of the Black IT Forum (Western Cape), said the remit of associations like Business Unity South Africa is to present a unified voice to government, and yet software has failed to take advantage of the platform to engage government on solutions that would transform society.
The ones with the problem have no idea how to use the tools, while the ones with the tools have no appreciation of the problem.
“After 18 years, despite the contribution that software is capable of making, quality education still eludes us. We don't have textbooks and we struggle to give fair and equal access to health.”
The reason, he suggested, lay in the software community's insularity. “Here we are today, composed 95% of technologists looking to resolve society's issues.
“When communities, professional or societal, are insular, knowledge gaps arise. The ones with the problem have no idea how to use the tools, while the ones with the tools have no appreciation of the problem.”
Diphoko's challenge to the industry provoked the following mini-debate from the floor:
“I'm confused – we already have too many ICT bodies in South Africa – 40 at last count. Surely one must look at the important ones and rather work with them? You might argue that the CSSA has done a poor job of representing the software industry, but why create yet another body; why not work with us and help us?” Moira de Roche, director (training and education) at CSSA.
“We must acknowledge that, whatever bodies there currently are, they're not having the desired impact. But we don't come with a silver bullet. We must keep engaging.” Wesley Diphoko, executive director, Black IT Forum.
“On the issue of engaging government, I think the issue is more the lack of co-ordination between different aspects of government, which has been declining, and the lack of a co-ordinated vision of what ICT can achieve. I take hope from the chairman of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee's invitation this morning to make a contribution, and that there will be co-ordinated action in respect of that contribution.” Professor Hans Peter Muller, director and chair, Centre for Knowledge Dynamics and Decision-Making Information Science, Stellenbosch University.
“The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has 45 technical societies and publishes 125 journals on vastly different areas of interest. Each sees itself as separate from the others, and yet the IEEE has grown and been influential, because it allows and serves the interests of that diversity. There is nothing to stop South Africa from having many societies and one overarching body in exactly the same way.” Michael Lightner, former president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Rubbish or relevant?
Diphoko went on to compare two examples of software's contribution – one successful and one a failure.
“If you consider Kenya's mobile money solution, M-Pesa, it is obvious where its success comes from; it was a response to a problem that was widely felt and understood. The social media app ecosystem, on the other hand, has absolutely no place in reality. It's mostly rubbish.”
He said no good can come of a failure to contribute.
“The National Development Plan, drafted by the National Planning Commission under the leadership of minister Trevor Manuel, makes little mention of technology. We must ask ourselves why, and at what opportunity cost.”
He concluded by inviting software engineers to contribute to the greater goal of the developmental state.
“Read the ANC's policy document on communication carefully; you will see a need to influence the future of ICT, and how it can solve problems. We want to be able to form an idea of the future of software in South Africa. And for that we need input.”
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