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Call for professional ICT standards after Boeing disasters

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The International Professional Practice Partnership (IP3), a global professional body for the technology sector, has called for defined minimum professional standards for ICT practitioners working on computer systems where human life might be at risk.

The call from the IP3, the professionalism arm of International Federation for Information Processing, follows reports that Boeing has developed a software patch to address the glitch in the 737 MAX 8 planes that caused two major airline crashes in the past 12 months and killed nearly 350 people.

On 29 October 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea 12 minutes after take-off with 189 passengers and crew. On 10 March 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed six minutes after take-off with 157 passengers and crew.

In each accident, the aircraft was less than four months old. Satellite tracking data showed similar flight profiles, which indicated that soon after take-off both airplanes pitched down multiple times and experienced extreme fluctuations in upward and downward speed, as the pilots evidently struggled for control.

Since the Ethiopian crash, fingers have been pointing towards a potential glitch in the Boeing 737 Max 8. Many countries have since grounded the aircraft.

IP3 chair and non-executive director of the Institute of Technology Professionals South Africa, Moira de Roche, wants defined standards in terms of qualifications and experience for ICT practitioners involved in designing, testing and maintaining safety-critical software systems, such as those used in transport, health and other sectors where system failure can cause death.

"Society used to believe that ICT practitioners did not have to be professionals because what they do is not life-threatening," says De Roche. "However, these crashes involving the Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes prove that software errors can threaten hundreds of lives at a time," she says.

IP3 accredits national member societies to certify ICT practitioners who meet minimum standards for technical knowledge and skills which are continually updated through continuing professional development and who are committed to a code of ethics and accountable for developing as well as maintaining trustworthy ICT systems.

The body says reports claim Boeing has completed and is now testing a software patch to prevent the controversial Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) from being triggered multiple times, which is what is believed to have caused the recent 737 MAX 8 crashes.

A recent Boeing statement says: "We've been working diligently and in close co-operation with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] on the software update. We are taking a comprehensive and careful approach to design, develop and test the software that will ultimately lead to certification."

De Roche points out that tighter standards are needed to ensure the public is protected when flying.

"While it's heartening to hear that Boeing has provided a patch to fix the issues in the MCAS software which have been blamed for the recent crashes, we need to ensure this kind of situation never happens again. We also need to question whether other unexplained aviation disasters over the past few years were also caused by software problems," she says.

"We believe that anyone working to design, build or test software systems that operate in high-risk environments such as transport, health, mining and more, should be required to demonstrate minimal levels of knowledge, skills and ethical conduct so the public can feel confident these systems are trustworthy."

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