Friday, October 18, 2013

Is it viable or not? An exercise in estimation.

In the first year course at Kent, we're involving students in the Transformed by You competition set up by Kent Connects. The aim of this is to collect ideas for technology that can have a transformative effect on lives of people in Kent. Our students are working on a design exercise, but we've also used examples of this to talk about ethics: for example, what are the ethical questions raised by parents monitoring their children's movements, or employers keeping track of their employees?

Another theme of the course is to encourage students to estimate quantities: we started off trying to estimate the size of the lecture theatre, but concluded the session by trying to estimate the viability of three of the suggested projects:

In thinking about this, we worked with a short set of prompts:
  • Scope: University of Kent? Canterbury? Size? Coverage?
  • What is needed (for it to operate)?
  • Cost (above the software itself): capital / running? Income?
  • Decision, with reasons.
The best solutions were definite: they fixed on a particular scenario, e.g. streaming lectures from the Canterbury campus at Kent, or the UniBus system of buses. Given that, making an assessment of what was needed - servers, webcams, GPS systems - followed, as did an estimate of costs, and then a justified decision: most of the well-documented solutions come in at about £10,000 capital costs, and perhaps £1,000 ongoing, leading to the decision that it is a viable proposal. Not all the solutions were as good as this.

One variation between solutions was scope: what can we take for granted, and what has to be supported explicitly? In the streaming example, do we have to pay for storage? for bandwidth? In the same example, would there be any income? [I think not!] We do record lectures, in fact, using Panopto, which gives us most of this functionality, but not in real time.

The bus example shows much more variability: fair enough, it's further away from people's experience. Even more so, the taxi example. The conclusion is that the bus app is viable, because the cost per GPS is small, and the number of buses constrained too; it clearly has a benefit, too. The taxi app is less clear: taxis belong to a number of companies, and without comprehensive sign up, it's less clear about the value. Is income going to be paid by taxi companies? Again, not clear.

The exercise was deliberately open-ended: perhaps too much so? The intended outcome is to give participants a mechanism for making rule of thumb estimates, when a reasoned estimate is better than a guess or a shrug of the shoulders. All part of being a professional. 

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