Engineering the right code for people and health

Research Lives: Ita Richardson, professor of software engineering at UL

How did you develop an interest in computers?

I went to secondary school in Loreto, Mullingar, and one of the teachers was my aunt, Sister Concepta. She and my dad, who was a teacher too, had gone to the US and learned about computer programming in the early 1970s, and she taught us extra classes on programming on Saturdays.

I loved them. I immediately got the logic of programming, and I still find it amazing that I was getting to write computer code in school in 1974! I went on and studied applied maths in Limerick, at NIHE (now UL), and then I worked at Wang Labs, before coming back to UL to do a PhD.

Today your research is in software engineering – how does that differ from writing software?

If you think of software like a building, then programming makes up the building blocks. What I work on is how the software is designed, how can we ensure that it meets the needs and preferences of users and conforms to regulations, for example.

We ask "are we writing the right lines of code?" and "will this give the users what they need?" My work at UL and in Lero – the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software – looks at the area of health, and how software can help to solve problems there and improve how we use technology to manage health.

What kinds of problems and solutions do you look at?

In the medical world, software regulations are huge. Many medical devices now have software at their hearts – compare an old blood-pressure monitor with its pump and dial to the versions we have today with results on screen. I work with manufacturers, to help ensure the developed software complies with regulations.

I also work with clinics and hospitals, to identify issues and map out how technology can help. One example is to send reminder texts automatically to patients, which reduces the number of no-shows at appointments.

Another is enabling doctors to view a patient’s results remotely and securely – that might be data from an app that the patient themselves is using to track their diabetes.

In another project, we identified that radiologists were often being interrupted while looking at X-rays, and one of the solutions was to set up scheduling systems. The answers are often a mix of technology, processes and people.

Tell us about a moment that made you glad you work in this area.

When the pandemic started, I helped the patient liaison team at University Hospital Limerick to put safe and secure protocols in place so patients could contact their loved ones remotely. I was very glad to have had even a small part in that.

What piece of advice has stood you well?

That there is learning in every situation. You can learn from people more senior and more junior than you, if you observe how others do things.

And finally, how do you take a break from work?

I love walking. I try to plan long walks into my day. On a day off recently, I went for a fantastic riverside walk that went through the UL campus. I think it says a lot about your workplace when you can do that.