Focus on research: Prof Ita Richardson, Lero
Prof Ita Richardson is a co-principal investigator at Lero, the Irish Software Research Centre. In this interview she talks about the challenge of developing and maintaining systems for the healthcare system during the pandemic, and the ongoing effort to make the STEM fields more diverse.
You were one of the first researchers in Lero. How has the centre has evolved, and your own work in it?
As an academic employed in the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems (CSIS) in the University of Limerick (UL), I teach CSIS undergraduate and taught postgraduate students. My subjects are Software Quality, Software Process and Professional Issues in Software Engineering.
My research is conducted within Lero, and my interests are Connected Health, Global Software Engineering, and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM). I am a member of the Ageing Research Centre, Health Research Institute in UL, where I collaborate with healthcare professionals in my research. I have conducted projects with companies such as Ocuco Ltd, IBM and Johnson & Johnson. I have also had Connected Health projects with University Hospital Limerick (UHL).
Initially, when Lero was set up, membership was three universities, led by UL. Now, Lero has a membership of approximately 300 researchers in 12 higher education institutions (HEIs), including seven Universities and five ITs. With this growth, comes diversity – many of our researchers and PhD students are international. I have recently been leading an application for Athena SWAN [a charter for recognition of diversity efforts] across CSIS and Lero in UL, and we still have work to do to ensure that there are women in PhD, researcher and investigator positions in Lero.
Initially, we had to work very hard to bring companies on board – now we have many companies with whom we have done research who return to us for further research. In UL, we were based in a building on the edge of campus. Through Programme of Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) we received funding to build our own facility within the Tierney Building on the UL Campus. We have a strong team of professional, management and support staff who support the researchers in the centre with administration, providing technical solutions, making industry contacts, leading education and outreach, and supporting us in grant applications. As a national centre, we apply for projects which involve many partners, such as ALECS programme, a Marie Sklodowska-Curie COFUND Fellowship Programme, which has funded research fellows in many of our partner HEIs.
Being within Lero has supported me strongly in my research collaborations – meeting with industry, linking with researchers in other HEIs and supporting PhD students. I have increased my number of collaborative publications, publishing with industry partners and colleagues in other HEIs and in industry. Internationally, Lero’s profile within the software engineering community has grown stronger over the years. We have had increased numbers of applications for PhD studentships and for post-doctoral/research fellow positions. Many of us have been involved, for example, in the organisation of the IEEE International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE), the community’s flagship conference. I was on the programme committee in 2017 and 2019, Doctoral Symposium Co-Chair 2016, Education Track Co-Chair 2013, and Co-Chair Workshop on Software Engineering in Healthcare Systems 2018.
Your work on connected health in hospitals must be undergoing something of a stress test during the pandemic. Are you seeing any new research pathways coming out of this experience?
Much of the research that we do in my group requires that we interact with healthcare professionals and with patients. Of course, this has been affected negatively as we cannot expect to have access during the Covid-19 pandemic. In two particular projects, where students are working to complete their PhDs, we had to be, and were, creative as to how we could proceed to ensure both students would not lose valuable time because they could not deal directly with these cohorts, while still ensuring that the research they did would be novel, useful, and worthy of a PhD.
In the early weeks of Covid-19, I did some work with the Patient Advocacy Liaison Service at University Hospital Limerick, as they developed their protocols regarding how they could support isolated patients contacting their families. This brought process thinking to the front line, and gave me an insight into what was expected in forthcoming weeks for those in intensive care – which made me quite sad.
I am a team member on Covigilant, a project led by Dr Jim Buckley, CSIS, which is a collaboration between UL and NUI Galway. We have received funding from Science Foundation Ireland to develop a taxonomy for the ‘ideal’ contact tracing app. It has been a very interesting project as we look at this from the technical and the clinical perspective and will be useful to the Health Services Executive (HSE) as we move forward. My research responsibility focused on how the EU Accessibility Directive can be brought into this taxonomy. I presented this work at a recent international workshop on software developer diversity and inclusion run by University of Victoria, Canada and Google, San Francisco, and we have a forthcoming paper from the team, led by Dr Damyanka Tsvyatkova, at the International Conference on Health Informatics, 2021.
In looking at developing a connected health service we still see a lot of paper-based record keeping. How far away are we from seeing centralised digital patient records becoming the norm?
This article has some interesting quotes from Prof Martin Curley, director of digital transformation and open innovation at the Health Service Executive (HSE). To support the HSE strategy, we in CSIS, are leading a MSc in Digital Health Transformation, led by course director Annette McElligott and run across all eight universities. I am a member of the course team.
The survey which we in Lero recently commissioned has shown that the Irish population are ready for digitisation. Seventy-one per cent of people favour the electronic storage of their personal health records that are accessible by them and their doctors, with just 14% opposing the idea. There needs to be an awareness of regulations, privacy and security, and ensuring this will increase confidence further.
Regarding digital healthcare, our survey also showed that an increasing number of people are participating in virtual health clinics. Before the pandemic, just one in 10 people (11%) surveyed had participated in any virtual consultation with a range of health professionals, including with a GP, consultant, pharmacist, physiotherapist or mental healthcare professional. This increased to 29% during the pandemic. Concern expressed by 87% of people is that there could be exclusion due to lack of access to technology (eg broadband), and 83% believe that they exclude people due to lack of confidence in using the technology. Sixty-four percent feel they are more convenient than in-person consultations and 70% believe they take less time.
In my view, and the research that I do, we continually are interested in how technology can support, but not replace, healthcare provision. What has happened during the pandemic shows that technology can support healthcare, but there are steps that still need to be taken to increase public confidence and use such as education, development of case studies and public and patient involvement.
What will you be looking out for during next year’s national Covid-19 vaccination programme? How would you structure it?
The government set up a high-level task force to deliver a strategy and the HSE has expertise in delivering immunisation programmes nationally, so, I am sure that this will work. They do need to have really clear communications around the vaccine to combat misinformation and to ensure that enough people are vaccinated to eradicate the threat of the disease.
You’ve been a vocal advocate for bringing more women into STEM. A lack of role models is sometimes cited as a reason for slow progress. Do you agree?
Throughout my career, I have advocated for the need for women in STEM. In Computer Science/Information and Communications Technology, for example, nationally, fewer than 20% of new entrants to university courses are women. From the social justice perspective, I consider that girls and women should be given equal opportunity and encouragement to go for the career that they are good at and interested in. Social structures don’t always allow this. I interviewed female STEM students from UL recently, and was shocked (yet again) at how many of them have to go out of their way to do physics as a Leaving Cert subject. This was the way in the 1970s, so what has changed?
This encouragement should be coming from parents, teachers, peers. They have a right to be interested in STEM, just as their male family and friends have that right – they should not be discouraged, which too often happens.
From the diversity perspective, there are too many examples where we are living in a world built by men for men. Some of the most spoken about are seat belts, symptoms of heart attack, traffic systems, but so many more exist. Data analysis now often underlies many decisions, but if women are not represented in the data, then the decisions are often biased towards males.
From the economic perspective, we do not have enough people internationally to continue development and innovation. Where are these extra people going to come from? In my view, they will come from that section of the population – girls and women – who have been forgotten.
Lack of role models is an issue, and we often hear about young women noticing women in STEM roles, and because of that, they consider a STEM career. Role models need to be seen by the students, but, I have come to think that parents and teachers also need to understand and see role models, so that they can give much-needed encouragement to their children and students.