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“The sources of funding for research and technology innovation are quite limited in Macau”

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MDT interview: Zhiming Liu, 2nd prize winner at the Macau Science and Technology Awards 2012

Dr Zhiming Liu recently received 2nd prize at the Macau Science and Technology Awards 2012 in the Natural Science Award category for the “rCOS Formal Model Driven Method for Software Development”, which he developed in close collaboration with Prof. Xiaoshan Li of the University of Macau and with the contribution of Dr. We Ke of the Macau Polytechnic Institute. Mr Liu studied mathematics from 1978-1982 in China’s Henan Province and remained at university after graduating, as “at that time there was no choice of jobs for university graduates in China”. So he became a mathematics teacher. He received his MSc in Computer Science from the Institute of Software of the Chinese Academy of Science in 1987, and his PhD in Computer Science from the University of Warwick (UK) in 1991. He did his postdoctoral research at the University of Warwick and the Technical University of Denmark from 1991-1994 and was a university lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Leicester (UK) from 1994-2005. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the United Nations University’s International Institute for Software Technology in Macau (UNU-IIST). MDT met the researcher and discovered not only how his research will benefit Macau, but also how to better understand the special species that is the information technologist. 

Macau Daily Times - What is your research about?
Zhiming Liu - Now computer software is everywhere in our daily lives no matter if we are at home, traveling or at work. Many of us have had experiences of nuisances caused by software bugs such as a web browser or an operating system freezing while performing an important task. However, software bugs do not only cause a nuisance, but also huge economic losses, disastrous environmental damage, serious human injuries and deaths in systems used by banks, nuclear power stations, avionic systems and healthcare. Poorly designed systems also cause intrusions to personal privacy, business, national secrecy and security. This is the problem of trustworthiness and reliability of software systems. Also, more than half of software projects fail to deliver anything and wipe out hundreds of millions of dollars. This is the problem of predictability in software development. These two problems are the essence of the so called “software crisis”. Software engineering is about the study and research development of theories, techniques and tools (i.e. software engineering methods) for the more predictable development of trustworthy software systems. The rCOS method is one such technique developed at the UNU-IIST in collaboration with the University of Macau.

MDT - What were the difficulties and how did you cope with them?
ZL – In addition to handling the challenging theory and techniques, we need to maintain a research team with different expertise. The difficulty is in obtaining enough funding and attracting the qualified researchers to Macau. We are grateful to the Macau Science and Technology Development Fund for the support that enables us to do research of international quality; that in turn helps in attracting researchers. On the other hand, the sources of funding for research and technology innovation are quite limited in Macau, and the grants from Macau Science and Technology development have very tight restrictions on the costs of travel to conferences and on the salaries of researchers, those at the postdoctoral level. Consider the level of their education – 4 years for undergraduate studies, a couple of years of Masters studies and 4 years of PhD studies - a postdoctoral research fellow deserves much higher pay than the USD 3,000 that is usually the top limit set by the Fund. Also, the introduction of a percentage (internationally 30-40%) of a grant for management overheads would make the universities and research institutes much more motivated to push their members of staff to make more applications and would thus improve the competiveness and the quality of their project proposals. Another challenge is the difficulty in achieving collaboration in the development of the applications in healthcare and related areas. This requires communication with governmental organizations, hospitals, clinics, doctors and healthcare workers. There are cultural and political barriers to these communications. Funding is also needed for the development of such collaboration.

MDT - What is the impact and benefit to Macau, and beyond?
ZL – The method is used to teach postgraduate students at the University of Macau and parts of rCOS have been taught in Masters, Bachelors, and PhD courses at universities all over the world.
Overall about 30 fellows from developing countries have been trained in rCOS research, and over 10 postdoctoral research fellows from both developed and developing countries have worked on rCOS related projects. Many of the fellows were PhD students, young researchers and professors from China. There have been 10 projects funded by the National Natural Science Foundation, 863 and 973 programs by the Ministry of Science and Technology and local governmental funding agencies respectively. It is important to note that the impact above is mainly in research and education. Our next stage of work is to apply this method to the development of healthcare systems. Our current focus is the design of Electronic Health Record Systems (EHR) to contribute to the advancement of ICT (Information Communication Technologies) in healthcare. That’s certainly very relevant to Macau. The two big hospitals have their information systems. But these systems do not “talk” to each other, and thus cannot share patients’ information. There are many private clinics. Some of them have information systems. However, the clinic information systems do not share information either, and they do not have access to the hospital systems’ information in particular. For example, if we go to see an expert in a private clinic, we need to bring our test results from the hospitals with us. So we have to look at how to develop integrated systems that allow health care providers to share information, and even better to share resources when necessary. This is the current agenda of the implementation of integrated electronic health/medical records (EHR/EMR). A simple but useful example of shared EMR systems would be a system to support the sharing of patients in the Dialysis Centers at the Government Hospital and Kiang Wu Hospital. We were approached by Kiang Wu Hospital to help them solve their problems. We have also developed conceptual documents and business plans for a number of applications to support community healthcare to elderly people, as well as to improve child vaccination in remote and under developed regions. We are looking for partners to carry out the experimental development of these systems.

MDT - How do you see the chances for young computer scientists in Macau?
ZL - The software industry here is not very mature. There have been rapid advances in ICT and Software Engineering in recent years. The ICT industry has been largely expanded. This offers more opportunities to graduates. On the other hand, to produce people that are directly employable, the universities (not just in Macau) are teaching more and more courses on state of the art technologies. This has substantially squeezed the time available for teaching the foundations of computer science and software engineering. Also there seems to be a trend that fewer and fewer people are interested in computer science and the fundamentals of software engineering. This is worrying, as in the long term, modern software technologies tend to become quickly out of date. Solid knowledge in the fundamentals of computer science and computer science is crucial for technology innovation. Another point I would like to make is that the development of “computational thinking”, as “mathematical thinking”, should be considered in the school curriculum.

MDT – What is Macau’s most urgent need in this domain?
ZL - The most urgent need for Macau is to integrate the big hospitals. So that this allows them to share information as they share patients. It would be very useful not only for medication but also for medical research. Not only in Macau, but everywhere, health organizations don’t have a good understanding about this yet. On the other hand it’s not their problem, as the status of software engineering has not been properly adapted to health care. This domain is always far behind the driving ones. There are several reasons for this: On the one hand, doctors are very reluctant to use systems they need time to be trained on. But on the other, health care systems are about people; it’s not about money. So, if any mistakes happen, the hospital will be blamed.

MDT - We laymen never really know what computer scientists do. For example, what is the difference between computer scientists and programmers?
ZL – Programmers are very different from computer scientists. Programmers simply use a technology. They learn how to use a language to write something. But computer scientists have to really get deeply into how these languages are designed, and how they are implemented. Programmers were the ones who first started to use machine languages. Then you gradually got these high level languages like “Pascal”, which are closer to natural languages. But then you need to compile that language into one that the machine can understand. So programmers learn how to use a language, but computer scientists have to at least partly help to create the language and how to implement it correctly. One of the concerns in CS is about how programs tell computers to carry out a computation, how to design an algorithm or a program to do what it is expected to do, and how to verify that an algorithm or a program does in fact do what it is required to do, and to analyze the complexity of an algorithm in terms of the time and memory needed for its execution on a computer. That’s only one part of the work that computer scientists do. Software engineers are also different from programmers. Programmers are like bricklayers. Software engineers include the people who do the architectural design.

MDT - What would you recommend to young people who are interested in information technology?
ZL - If you want to be a computer scientist, not only a programmer, you really need to be well equipped with mathematics. Only when you study mathematics will you become more interested in fundamental computer science. The special nature of ICT and software engineering is that the technologies that you see today will disappear or be out of date very soon. So you must be able to develop yourself after graduating. Furthermore, software development is becoming more and more inter-disciplinary, and more able computer science students would be better off if they could develop knowledge about a domain in which software systems are important.

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Pretty cool interview and I've got lot of information about technology in Macau but it makes me disappointed that sources of funding for research and technology innovation are quite limited in Macau. I hope leading person in the world will see this issue deeply by their helping them. Thanks dude.
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