Derrida`s deconstruction to help safety industry

A technique used by academics to analyse poetry may soon help industry to find out whether computer safety systems really ARE safe. In a novel example of interdisciplinary academic work, English literature meets computing science in an project to design a decision-making framework for the safety industry.

Newcastle University researcher Jim Armstrong, who holds a first degree in English Literature and a PhD in Computing Science, is investigating how the technique ‘deconstruction’ – usually used to analyse literary texts – can help regulatory bodies read between the lines when considering safety cases.

Computer safety systems for nuclear power stations, chemical plants and aircraft must have the approval of the relevant industrial regulatory body before they allowed to be put into place.

Companies must write ‘safety cases’, which explain the reasons why their safety systems are safe – taking into account possible problems and disasters – and present these to the regulators. These are very important, because if safety systems go wrong they could result in loss of life.

Currently regulators base their decisions on two criteria. One is whether the company satisfies a formal ‘check list’ of safety standards. The second is usually an intuitive judgement as to whether they think the company itself will honour these, often based on its safety culture and competence.

Dr Armstrong, of the Centre for Software Reliability, is looking at the second level of decision making, which at the moment is very subjective. He therefore intends to develop a standard decision making framework to formalise this across the board.

Deconstruction, a technique developed by the French philosopher Derrida, is, in simple terms, finding meanings in texts which authors did not intend to put there – essentially, reading between the lines.

Dr Armstrong said:

“To some extent, companies can learn to play the game, and satisfy the formal checklist in the safety arguments they put forward. But it is often the case where one department in the company – the one putting the safety case forward – is concerned about safety, and that the rest of the company does not give it as high a priority.

“Regulators already use their experience and knowledge of the industry to make their decisions, but our research will provide a formal and philosophical framework. We can use deconstruction because a safety case is presented as a text.”

The research is funded by a £73,000 Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Realising Our Potential Award.

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