Glamour amid the Gaussian distributions

They may have lacked the excitement of the Brits, but nobody was pouring cold water on the laudable achievements of the IT industry at the 25th annual British Computer Society Awards last week. Mark Vernon reports.
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The British Computer Society's annual awards evening is the closest the UK computer industry comes to the Oscars. Receiving the honour carries prestige, added to this year by being the silver jubilee of the event. There is an echo of glamour, provided by the grand surroundings of the Institution of Civil Engineers. It does better than Hollywood with its display of originality.

Alongside the technology, the occasion also provides a fascinating snapshot of the faces of the IT industry. Grey-haired grandees are there, alongside the young and innovative. Solipsistic geeks - technology's creatives - rub shoulders with open-armed marketeers - IT's very own luvvies.

Sir Brian Jenkins GBE, president of the BCS, opened the event last week with fine words celebrating the excellence which his organisation seeks to promote, in its awards and with other activities, including publications and accreditation. But it was the introduction of the guest presenter, the glamorous and technophilic broadcaster Angela Lamont, that produced the heartiest applause of the evening, at least amongst the great and the good, who were either thrilled that women are making a visible impact upon the industry, or perhaps rather excitable after a sherry reception.

Sir Brian was good-natured. "This does not fill me with confidence," he said with a laugh. Ms Lamont was magnanimous. "I paid the man over there to say,

Awards were given to the winners and also to the runners-up, the medallists. Dr John Daugman, of the Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, was one winner for his work on iris recognition, which will find a huge range of uses, including ATMs and airport check-in desks. What he had achieved was, in a manner of speaking, identified by Shakespeare: "Sometimes from her eyes I did receive speechless messages." But if the audience didn't appreciate his literary allusion to the complexity of the task, his mathematical explanation demonstrated it clearly.

Several minutes of algebra and Bernoulli formulae left them in the dark about the mysteries that had such practical applications. And when Dr Daugman referred, with easy obscurity, to "the usual Gaussian distributions which will be familiar to you all", a chuckle went round the room. Another one of IT's faces, touchingly unaware that, to most, probability theory means little more than that there is not much chance of winning the lottery, but it may be worth a try.

Joanne Durnell was the proud receiver of the Sidney Michaelson Medallion, given for her work on a British Gas billing system which formed the project she submitted for her BCS finals examination. What is perhaps surprising is that she left school with A-levels in English literature and art, as well as in maths, and that this combination has contributed to her good results. "I believe that my love of art has assisted me in computing, especially when working on the visual presentation of systems," she said.

The City of London's electronic share settlement system, Crest, was another winner. Much was hanging on this project as the replacement of the Taurus system, which spectacularly failed in 1993 and left London compromised as a leader in the world's financial markets. David Wyatt's discussion of the project was the good, solid stuff usually associated with technology successes. The system performs up to 80,000 tasks a day, distributes millions of messages in near-real time, and guarantees asset moves worth pounds 350bn to the UK economy. The press said it would never work, but, declared Wyatt with deserved satisfaction, "Yesterday was our biggest day and no one even noticed."

The awards went to a full range of projects. Multimedia TextEase is the ultimate word processing package, reading back documents to you and avoiding the formatting nightmares still common to current solutions. "What you really, really want, is what you really, really get," quipped Lamont, calling the product "Text Spice". Some of the audience got it.

The Mobile Data Terminal System has enabled Cleveland Constabulary to move from last to fourth in the police's league of response times. "It's just like The Bill," said Angela Lamont, presumably forgetting that Cleveland's chief constable was recently disgraced for adopting a Hollywood-style promotion of zero tolerance.

IT winners were on the platform, but losers could be spotted in the audience. Not so much those who didn't quite make it for a BCS award, as individuals who, more generally, have fallen foul of the fast-paced and competitive business of computing. BCS events provide major networking opportunities for those who have lost their jobs. One was the sorry ex-employee of a certain just-merged IT company, whose skills no longer fitted in with a board trying to bring alien cultures together. "I was shafted", as he put it. Another face of the IT industry.