“I have spent 50 years applying computing to scientific problems and the great thrill that I have had is when I have made a difference, and I think that’s what most women want to do in computing.”
“I consider myself a digital native and it always infuriates me when younger people consider themselves digital natives, because they’re not!”
Early Life & Education
Louise Bennett as born in January 1947 in London. Her father was an architect and her mother was a journalist. She attended North Bridge House School, in St John’s Wood, which was a very progressive co-ed, encouraging children to follow their own inclinations. She particularly enjoyed geography, inspired by her teacher, and zoology, inspired by David Attenborough, but it was science where she really excelled. At her secondary school she won the school science cup, the Priestley Cup, for getting the top marks in science subjects at O level.
She obtained both A levels and S levels before moving on to St. Anne’s College, Oxford to read geography. Although it was a women’s college the tutor groups were mixed and she made lifelong friends from other colleges. Louise thinks that on balance it helped to study in a single sex environment, primarily because she was surrounded by female role models and successful academics, so there was an assumption that women could achieve anything, and that she herself would have a career.
Her mother, Jeanne Heal, a very successful journalist working for Picture Post, was also a strong influence. The first woman on TV after the war, she interviewed a long string of famous people who often visited their home. Maria Callas and Baroness Summerskill (one of the first women MPs) were among those whom Louise remembered meeting. Baroness Summerskill became her mentor and proposed the health of the Bride and Groom at her wedding.
Louise’s university studies involved meteorology and oceanography and set the scene for her move into work. After turning down a tempting offer from the USA in oceanography she chose instead to combine meteorology with zoology. In 1968 she applied to the Anti-Locust Research Centre where she worked on locust plague dynamics using meteorological forecasting, in Africa and the Middle East and Asia with the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation). Her first experience of computing was modelling weather using London University’s Atlas computer, which involved punching paper tape and took a week to produce results. She was fascinated by the potential of computing for analysing big data sets and supporting large models. She was the first person in the UK to use the NOAA satellite data from the US where she tracked rainfall in the Sahara from infrared images of vegetation. So she was combining different sources of information to inform her work. She drew weather maps by hand every day, adding data and reflecting all the time and this gave her a detailed understanding of the models she was building and a feel for accuracy. She is troubled by the modern tendency to use algorithms and models without understanding them which can easily lead to huge unconscious bias and errors.
She was based in London but travelled extensively, working primarily in North and East Africa. She was generally very well looked after when abroad although she recounted a narrow escape in a war zone in Ethiopia. She stayed in this job for seven years, during which time she also completed a Doctorate in Zoology and Applied Entomology as an external student at Imperial College, focusing on her work on locust plague dynamics. She married in 1973 and left Anti-Locust in 1975 for a combination of reasons including a sense of disillusion with overseas aid which dealt with problems that were primarily caused by politics and corruption, and a desire to travel less following her marriage.
Ministry of Defence
Louise moved to the Ministry of Defence as an operations analyst, a role that needed the kind of computing she had used in zoology. Again she used punch cards but this time she had staff to do the punching and it was on an ICL computer with an operating system called George. She started programming in BASIC and Fortran and developed a flying training programme called Fly Trap to balance recruitment, training places and pilot vacancies across the RAF. After four or five years she moved to the RAE at Farnborough where she did the real-time programming, using Coral 66, for air-to-air combat simulators and in about 1980 she developed the very first voice interactive systems for aircraft. She became the technical authority on Typhoon, which was then the Eurofighter, and worked on new systems like moving map displays and helmet-mounted displays for Harriers and Tornados – essentially the precursor for what we call wearable technology today. Her proudest achievement during this time was finding a way to alert pilots that their altimeter had failed, which brought a welcome end to a string of crashes when flying at low level in poor visibility. Louise was promoted to superintendent and dealt with test aircraft and helmet mounted displays which were used in the Falklands War as experimental equipment. She then changed jobs and became Superintendent of Air-to-Air Guided Weapons, developing ASRAAM.
Louise’s last job in the Ministry of Defence was a short stint working in London in civilian management to support the career progression of scientists and engineers in the civil service. She had been very concerned that scientific civil servants were treated less well than administrative staff. She described the experience as unspeakable, reminiscent of Yes Minister. She soon realised it was not for her and accepted a job offer from Thorn EMI.
During her time at MoD, Louise had two children and was expecting her second when she moved to RAE, much (as she later found out) to the horror of her erstwhile supervisor.
Life in the Private Sector
Due to commercial sensitivities, Louise could not work in missile research at Thorn EMI so she became the IT director of Thorn EMI Electronics, where she introduced computer integrated manufacturing in all their factories in the UK and US. She learned some important lessons about change programmes, firstly that people will resist change and secondly that it is all about detail.
In the late 1980s she became R&D Director as well as IT Director and moved to Thorn Security where she led early work in biometrics with fingerprint, hand, iris and voice recognition and also established a smart house with access controls and environmental controls. In the high security environments on which she worked, systems were set up to prevent false negatives, unlike consumer-focused systems today. Her work included the security and fire systems for Eurotunnel, security for many banks and a contract with Middle Eastern clients who never spotted that Dr Bennett was female.
Louise enjoyed working with Dame Stephanie Shirley and first encountered her when at RAE where she contracted the FI group in the early 1980’s. Steve Shirley introduced her to the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists which she later joined and where she is now a liveryman. (0:42:20)
Louise left Thorn EMI when their division was sold to a US company and moved to Logica to work on their defence and security operations, where her first job was to build a consulting group. After a couple of year she moved to London as Director of the Government Group which covered all Logica’s government work except defence.
Risk Solutions & Beyond
From Logica, Louise moved to AEA Technology (the privatised Atomic Energy Establishment) to set up a risk management business, based on nuclear risk management methodologies, which was established, and still exists, as Risk Solutions. While in one sense she had moved into a sales and marketing role, the core requirements of risk management are really related to modelling and seeing the larger picture. Louise and her two fellow directors hoped to buy out the company from AEA but were turned down (it was doing too well!) so they decided to set up their own companies instead. However, she had learned important lessons from her time at Risk Solutions, for instance that a project based homeworking company could not depend on new graduates, they were just not ready to work independently.
Louise established her new company Vivas, but limited herself to three days a week because she wanted a portfolio career. She became deputy chairman of PITO, the Police IT Organisation, tasked with implementing common IT systems and running the Police National Computer.
Some of her more interesting risk management tasks were on the communications side: preparing organisations for coping with breaches, mitigating the risks, managing the situation, dealing with customers and protecting reputation. Overall though she takes greatest pride in the fact that work she did for her doctorate was published in Nature, so she is really still a scientist at heart.
Having spent time in both public and private sectors, Louise sees a very different approach to research: the public sector justifies work more on the basis of its potential importance and impact rather than its feasibility. So, people may work on an area for decades without getting anywhere because the external technical developments that would enable real progress are not yet in place. Commercial firms have to be more realistic and apply a risk based approach. They might revisit key innovative ideas from time to time, but they will stop research projects that are unlikely to deliver. There are lots of government research projects that should be halted, until the risks of failure have been reduced by parallel research programmes or other external factors.
The ethics of data collection and big data analysis are very important and very problematic. GDPR has helped because it forces organisation to think more carefully about the data they collect, how they use it and how long they keep it. Legacy systems are particularly problematic here because it is very tricky to move to new systems: doing this carelessly, without attention to detail, without piloting, without parallel running, can lead to huge problems. If the data is poor quality or unsuitable, if people do not understand the algorithms or the models they are using then things can go very wrong. This is really a very dangerous tendency.
In a security context, security has to be handled like a safety critical system. It is absolutely essential to know how things work, how the algorithms work. The people who use it must really understand it, and this applies equally whether it is in the public or the private sector.
In emergency situations the key is that the scenario has been rehearsed, that people know “where the fire escapes are and which ones are blocked”, and apply that thinking at a management level.
The internet of things poses special threats to security because it has been developed on the basis of enabling things to interact, not ensuring that they can interact securely. So these systems must be secure by default. Then the fantastic opportunities that these technologies offer can be realised safely.
In terms of internet crime, this is something that is very well understood within the financial sector where liability is known at every point in a chain of custody representing every millisecond of a transaction. This is absolutely essential and big data and analytics can help differentiate fraudulent activity from everyday transactions – provided that the dataset is accurate and representative. Again, both the data and the analytics have to be right.
There are enormous challenges ahead: we are using analytics that we don’t understand and making false assumptions. There is also the question of privacy. People are less aware then they should be that they are exchanging their personal data for free services. Those services are not free. Also there is a disconnect between the way people behave face to face and how they behave online where they are much less constrained by social norms and where bullying can be relentless.
Louise believes that there are lots of opportunities for IT to make lives easier for older people, helping them keep in touch, stay in their homes and receive healthcare and looks forward to taking advantage of them herself in future.
Louise sees IT as the most exciting possible arena to engage in, where things are constantly changing and there are always new things to learn. She thinks that women in the sector, representing only 17% of the workforce (7% in security), still have to work harder than men. Women mustn’t get annoyed when people carp about positive discrimination and should never, ever whinge.