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Hard hats, council data harvest, esports charter and more: best of the week’s news

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E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

‘White men in hard hats’ image of engineering persists

The Royal Academy of Engineering has drawn attention to the fusty image of what an engineer is and does by training a generative adversarial network (GAN) using thousands of image search results for ‘engineer’ and getting it to generate synthesised images of engineers from this data. Unsurprisingly, the GAN produced images of white men wearing hard hats.

The Academy and over 100 other organisations have pledged to address this issue by using a more diverse set of images to illustrate the profession of engineering.

OK, but the issue isn't that engineering looks too white and male. The issue is that engineering is too white and male. Hard hat aside, the images created by the network are reasonably accurate reflections of engineering in the UK. According to a Women’s Engineering Society report from 2018, just 12 per cent of engineers are women and according to a Royal Academy of Engineering analysis from 2013 just six per cent are from ethnic minority backgrounds, despite ethnic minorities comprising 13 per cent of the UK population. Less visible but just as concerning is classism: engineers are overwhelmingly middle class, with an Engineering UK report estimating that just 24 per cent of engineers come from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s GAN stunt was a great way to draw attention to the problem, but changing the 'image' of engineering is not enough (I’m sure the Academy would agree, incidentally). Having a diverse range of people represented in marketing material means nothing if women and other disadvantaged groups in an organisation aren’t taken seriously. Well-meaning campaigns can engage, raise awareness, challenge attitudes, encourage and inspire until the cows come home, but ultimately what matters is equal pay. For instance, last year’s salary survey by The Engineer found that female engineers were paid £35,800 on average while their male counterparts were paid £48,866 on average. This is outrageous and requires drastic systemic change.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Nearly all councils hand user tracking data to marketing companies

An important E&T investigation has revealed the structural exploitation of user data collected by advertising firms on public council websites. It was called a "gigantic data breach” by one source, who said that is clearly breaks national and EU privacy laws.

What struck me as surprising is that councils use advertising as a source of income in such casual terms. People in the industry know about it and no one dares saying anything about it or to complain.

Now, you might counter and ask: when Transport for London is allowed to earn £150m in revenue last year from advertising, why shouldn’t public councils be allowed to follow suit and to profit on the side, especially after years of austerity?

Many arguments are laid out in the piece. If it depends on the UK company Council Advertising Network (CAN), the selling of your private data should clearly continue. CAN's media pack mentions several alarming areas you should consider, e.g. “When people have a baby, move house, get married or lose a loved one, they are required to register these events with their local council”, as it says in the media pack. All this information can potentially be accessed by marketing companies and whoever is the highest bidder for your data.

If you see no issue with that, consider the following: “Council websites are used by the over-60s to apply for blue badges, freedom passes and pension help”. Do you really think unwitting visitors to public websites want any of this information to end up in private commercial hands?

Or take CAN's example of people with a disability who go on a council website to “access services such as home care, blue badges, disability benefit and other community and social services through council websites”. This information is likely to be of great interest to private insurance companies. If I had a disability, this would be something I would be nervous about.

The picture we have drawn with our investigation on councils is unlikely to present a different picture for UK public health websites. In the UK, these are websites by clinical commissioning groups (CCG). A quick check of six NHS CCGs, using the tool Privacy Badger, shows that enfieldccg.nhs.uk has six trackers; ealingccg.nhs.uk has six tracker; berkshirewestccg.nhs.uk has 10 trackers; bnssgccg.nhs.uk has five trackers; sheffieldccg.nhs.uk has 12 trackers and miltonkeynesccg.nhs.uk has nine trackers. This is some indication that aggressive marketing advertising tracking is also deployed there.

You may also want to remember that there’s an election coming up. Will any of the data collected from you when you visited public websites be used in the election campaign? With the findings from our report, we can't rule it out completely. Perhaps something to think about in the coming weeks of election frenzy.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

‘White men in hard hats’ image of engineering persists

‘Pale, male and stale’ lives on! The Royal Academy of Engineering trained a machine-learning algorithm to synthesise images of engineers, based on online search results. Surprise, surprise: the public face of engineering remains thoroughly white, male with a hard hat plonked on top. Fantastic news!

The generative adversarial network used more than 1,100 images of engineers found online to generate new images of engineers and the pics generated by the machine-learning system were overwhelmingly of white men wearing hard hats. 63 per cent of the images on the first page of search results for ‘engineer’ featured a hard hat, yet only a small minority of professional engineers actually wear them on a regular basis. D’oh.

The Academy has joined with over a hundred organisations, including the BBC, Facebook, Transport for London, the National Grid, Engineering UK and ITV to pledge to sort out the misrepresentation of engineers and the profession of engineering via the ‘This Is Engineering’ campaign.

We’ll see how that works out. There have been many initiatives trying to shed light on what engineers are like today. Unfortunately, the industry still isn’t very inclusive, despite all the work done to improve the stats.

It’s been estimated that just 12 per cent of the engineering workforce are women and nine per cent are ethnic minorities. Depressing, isn’t it?

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

India’s plans for facial recognition condemned by human rights experts

Facial recognition is shaping up to be one of the most controversial technology issues of the next few years. Some governments are turning it down, while others are embracing it. It’s not an easy decision. On the one hand, it could help to cut crime by detecting suspects or deterring criminals, rather like CCTV is supposed to, but the evidence for that is far from clear. On the other hand, it can be used by the government, or potentially other organisations, to monitor and control citizens.

Recently, California turned it down. In the UK there have been legal challenges and ongoing ethical concerns. In places like China, however, where it is already used across cities with little or no concern for civil liberties, it’s simply not questioned. Not openly, anyway. India is now embracing it for use in its cities after trials in which it was said have helped find missing children. If that’s what it seems, it has to be welcomed, but I wonder how many of the ‘missing’ persons ‘found’ in Chinese cities actually really want to be found?

Tim Fryer, technology editor

The Humber set to become a zero-carbon industrial zone by 2040

New Zealand passes legally binding commitment to net zero carbon by 2050

Despite the similar themes, I think these are two quite different propositions. Countries claiming - or aiming – to be carbon neutral by 2050 are certainly doing the right thing, and have the best intentions, but do they really mean it? Saying it will happen doesn’t mean that it will and - just as we have also failed to do in the UK - New Zealand has not backed up the intention with a clear road map of how it is going to achieve it.

Theresa May, who made the British commitment earlier this year, with good fortune will still be enjoying her dotage in 2050, but will not be held responsible if the goal isn’t reached by then. The same is true of the majority of the captains of industry and society of our current generation who need to make it happen now. There’s just a verbal enthusiasm for electric vehicles and more trees.

There is no breakdown of every bit of energy used in every supply chain; every bit of flatulence emerging from farmyard animals; every new resource dug up from the earth. There is no timeline to say that if we are going to be carbon zero by 2050, we need to have hit certain targets by 2020, and 2021, and every small step along the way. There is no breakdown of where the investment will come from and when it needs to be in place in order to get such things as an electric vehicle-charging infrastructure established.

There is plenty of good stuff being done, but I don’t think it is co-ordinated enough, nor disciplined in its implementation, to make obtaining our ultimate target realistic.

This is why the Hull (Humber region) project looks like a step in the right direction. It has not only set a target, but appears to have broken down how it can be reached. Admittedly, it is a lot easier to manage a project that fundamentally involves three companies, as the Hull project does, than to change the energy consumption habits of an entire nation, but maybe that would be the best way forward – picking out manageable pockets that could make a real difference when stacked up together.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Lib Dems promise to invest £15bn in home insulation improvements

The Liberal Democrat party has announced its pledge to invest billions over the next parliament - should it be elected to government - in insulating homes in an effort to tackle climate change and fuel poverty. The money could be spent on insulation, double-glazing and more effective and modern heating systems for 26 million homes by 2030, saving the average household £550 a year on energy bills, the party claimed.

Meanwhile, the Labour party has pledged £60bn of similar energy-saving home improvements in its ‘warm homes for all’ policy, promising to lower the energy bills for millions of low-income households. The Tory party has no comparative pledge: Boris Johnson seems more concerned with shoring up support for the Conservatives amongst its more elderly demographic by promising to keep the TV licence free for over-75s, making it "a top election priority", as well as bribing them all to vote his way by doling out free money with a promise to raise the state pension by 3.9 per cent, the most generous such increase in almost a decade.

It's the Tory way: appeal to the individual's sense of self-preservation and financial wellbeing directly through their purse or wallet. Promise them more money, even if they never actually get it, or it turns out to mean much less than was promised in real terms. By then, of course, it's too late to complain because their vote will long-since have been cast. It's been the party's unbeatable, proven strategy for decades.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

‘White men in hard hats’ image of engineering persists

The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) has trained a machine-learning algorithm to synthesise images of engineers, based on online search results, and found that the perception of engineering still stands as ‘white men with hard hats’.

This doesn’t come as a surprise, but simultaneously, I can imagine this perception is rather disheartening for all the engineers that don’t fall under these categories. Here at E&T and the IET, we strive to change the perception of engineers and engineering as a profession. Engineering isn’t just about white men in hard hats being part of a team constructing a bridge.

Although I am not an engineer myself, nor having an engineering background, growing up with a father who is a design engineer has taught me to see the bigger picture, that it is not only about hard hats and bridges. There’s so much more to the profession. There is also a breadth of expertise within the engineering profession, where you will now find different genders, ethnicities and other backgrounds working in all kinds of fields.

I hope that eventually the perception of engineers changes and that it would encourage future generations to consider a career in the engineering world, particularly young girls and those with different backgrounds. To do this, we must come up with new, exciting and engaging ways to show how broad the profession is, turning away from the ‘white men with hard hats’ stereotype.

Laser pointer could hack voice-controlled virtual assistants

Neat. From a hacker’s perspective, of course.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Global esports bodies agree on universal principles of fair play and respect

Radio news is dominated so much by the forthcoming general election right now that I’ve found myself sticking to a few reliable CDs for in-car entertainment on my commute to and from work just to briefly escape from it all. A couple of days ago, though, I wasn’t quick enough to switch across and found myself engrossed in a story that was educational for someone like me who has little knowledge of, or interest in, online gaming.

Most of the rest of the world will no doubt be aware of the furore surrounding the decision by Epic, the company behind ubiquitous blockbuster Fortnite, to ban one of the game’s top professional players for life for using special software that gave him a distinct advantage over competitors. In five minutes, BBC radio news did a pretty good job of explaining why this is a significant story, as well as why it’s divided the gaming community.

Equipped with this knowledge – and an idea of how much money is at stake for career gamers these days - I was better able to understand why the fact that esports organisations from around the world have agreed a set of ‘unifying principles’ designed to promote fair play and respect is a story that matters a lot to a massive number of people.

With football having to come to terms with how it’s going to adopt technology in the shape of VAR analysis, and currently not doing a very successful job of it, it’s interesting to see sports that have established themselves online dealing with the fact that competitions increasingly take place in the physical world. Some commentators have tried to draw direct parallels between the two – comparing the use of booster software with drug-taking, for example. I don’t think this works terribly well, but it’s hard to disagree with the idea that any industry with audiences in the millions has to have clear rules dictating how participants and viewers should behave.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Facebook exploited user data as bargaining chip, leaked documents reveal

Facebook commits to end-to-end encryption in Messenger, despite government concerns

Facebook user data still being harvested by tranche of developers

Facebook sued over gender and age discrimination

Seduction via aubergine emoji arouses Facebook’s suspicion

Rather unexpectedly for myself, my pick today has taken the shape of a dossier, consisting of this week’s news headlines alone. To my mind, they tell the story very well on their own and any lengthy comments here are superfluous. While Facebook seems to be – deservedly! - under fire from all sides for its total lack of respect for its users’ privacy and its constant readiness to sell all sorts of information about them (the users) to any available bidder, its bosses - instead of getting their disgraceful act together at last - found nothing better to do than to fight the totally innocent and entirely uncomplaining emojis! 

What can I say? If an emoji could be reproduced here, I’d definitely choose the one conveying extreme rage. Also shamelessness, albeit I doubt that the latter actually exists in the rich and ever-growing emojis gallery.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Crossrail budget tops £18bn but it won’t open until at least 2021

Surprise, surprise: Crossrail has been delayed again, with cost increases of £650m. The announcement is basically a tradition at this point. Every six months, the project’s final deadline is extended at additional expense. I wouldn’t be surprised if no one ever gets to actually travel on it and it remains a white elephant for ever and ever with public funds just disappearing down the black hole of a futuristic railway.

British infrastructure projects apparently never stick to the proposed timeframes or budget, which begs the question: why are we so bad at estimating how long things will take? It’s not like railways are new technology; in fact, it’s the oldest machine transport in the world. One would have thought this extensive history would provide a broad base to make accurate predictions as to cost and timeframe. 

I suspect it’s because the companies that bid for the projects consistently underestimate the costs and time it will take in order to win the job during the tendering process. This leads me to ask why companies are not being punished for this. Surely they should be fined for not providing realistic estimates?

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