Tech workers: Front line of essential services


James Riley
Editorial Director

Debate is underway on how to apply key classes of technology worker to essential service definitions in the event that mandatory lock-downs are applied across Australia in order to keep the lights blinking on critical information systems.

Public and private organisations across the country are focused on their information systems and triaging which tech workers are ‘remote-able’ – and can perform their function from home – and which are critical to on-location operation of infrastructure.

Like no other crisis in the nation’s history, the response and mediation of the health and economic impact of COVID-19 is reliant on data, and on critical infrastructure like data centres and telecommunications networks.

Tech workers
Tech workers form a second front line in COVID-19 fight

There are two sides to this unprecedented reliance on the IT’s critical infrastructure according to Robert Hillard, Deloitte’s chief strategy and innovation officer and chairman of the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA).

The first is in the fight against the virus itself. While the physical front line is held by healthcare workers, the fight to contain the spread of the virus, to manage its impact and to ultimately build a response depends on data.

In this context, its not just the people running the networks and traffic that are providing the essential service, but anyone involved with data services that can be applied to the fight as well, Mr Hillard said. The ride-sharing services and their data scientists, for example, have been quick to help with contact tracing.

Secondly, in order to mitigate the massive economic impact that the virus is having is to try to “maximise the amount of work that we do across the economy via our technology infrastructure.”

“Those are two quite different and related things that give you a sense of where the most important jobs are across the economy,” Mr Hillard.

“Keeping those technology workers working is key. There is a little bit of an advantage in that many are able to work from home,” he said.

But where they can’t, exceptions must be made for technology workers involved in protecting and maintaining critical infrastructure in discussions about mandatory lockdowns. This would need to be applied not just to telecommunications networks, but to data centre personnel and cloud services providers.

“It would be catastrophic if we lost access to those data centres, not least because it would stop us from working (from home), but because we would lose access to the data,” Mr Hillard said. “And this is as much a data war as it is a health war.”

“Anyone who is involved with the data services that supports [the health] effort is equally a part of our critical workforce,” he said. “And that’s going to morph and change over time.”

NSW Department of Customer Service chief data scientist and Australian Computer Society president Ian Oppermann said a lot of work was being was being done now to determine “which jobs can be made remote and which jobs are critical in the different phases of prepare, endure and respond.”

“We are still building up to a critical point in Australia. A lot of preparation work is being done to determine which jobs are critical today, which might be slightly different to the jobs that are critical in the period where we have the full-blown outbreak,” Dr Oppermann said.

“And this may well be different from the jobs that are critical in recovery phase,” he said.

“There have obviously been a lot of conversations about critical infrastructure and what we need to be doing to make sure it stands up.

“In some cases, we are going to experience some degradation of that critical infrastructure, but with coordination it’s like electricity – a brown-out is better than a black-out.”

“The ability to still operate, even if it’s at a slightly lower performance but still operational, is critical.”

AIIA chief executive Ron Gauci said in discussions about essential workers in the technology sectors, consideration will need to be given to ‘teams’ – where a variety of different skills are critical in their application to a single problem.

“Essential services might also include those scientists who are trying to find a vaccine and a cure, supported by the data analysts who are providing the testing tools, and research information supported by the coding specialists who are creating the systems that provide for the analysis,” Mr Gauci said.

“Today’s ecosystem of essential service agents or practitioners is far more complex and encompassing than ever before,” he said.

“During previous global medical crises, we relied on professions that were more clearly distinguishable. Today the ‘team’ looks significantly different, all playing a significant part in the solution chain.”

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