Computers play an important role in every aspect of our society today. Hardly does a day pass without one coming across a computer system that is used in offering services that were initially done manually.
In this chapter, we shall look at how computers have been applied in the contemporary society to add value to the information systems of various organizations. An information system is a collection of specific human and machine efforts required to support the decision making process, data processing, information output and presentation.
Application areas of information and communication technology
Information and communication technology (lCT) has been applied in various areas such as in the development of financial systems, retail systems, reservation systems, educational systems, communication systems, industrial systems, scientific and research systems, library systems, entertainment systems, transportation systems, home use, office expert systems, marketing, virtual reality systems and law enforcement systems.
Financial systems enable organisations to manage their finances. They include:
- Payroll systems.
- Accounting systems.
- Banking systems.
The primary purpose of this system is to process the accurate information of employees including gross pay, deductions and the net pay. Because money spent on human resource is one of the largest operating expenses of a business, a payroll system is also designed to produce several analysis reports e.g. a breakdown of payroll expenses against production/income of the company.
Accounting systems are popular in business management. There are six key business accounting activities/subsystems: 1. Customer order entry and billing
- Inventory management
- General ledger accounting
- Accounts receivable
- Accounts payable
Customer orders entry and billing
Customer orders entry and billing subsystem records incoming customer orders, authorises delivery of items or services ordered and produces invoices for customers who do not pay in advance or on cash basis.
Inventory management is used to keep track of the items in stock and help the management determine which items to reorder. This helps the management to have enough stock at all times to meet the needs of the customers.
General ledger accounting
General ledger accounting is used to keep track of how much a business makes and its worthiness by summarising the financial transactions. It produces reports on income, sources of income, expenses, and the net profit or loss earned. A summary report of these transactions is called a balance sheet and is usually generated at the end of an accounting period.
Accounts receivable system keeps track or records of the amount owed by each customer. This helps the management to make a follow-up by billing the customers for overdue payments.
Accounts payable system keeps track of the amount the business owes others e.g.
suppliers, tax organisations, transport e.t.c. Hence, it helps the management to produce cheques for payment of these amounts.
The banking industry was one of the earliest consumers of information and communication technology. The computerised banking services include:
- Processing customer transactions.
- Cheque clearing and processing.
- Electronic funds transfer.
Processing customer transactions
Computers are used in banks to carry out financial transactions such as recording deposits, withdrawals and calculating interests on savings and loans. Such systems also generate reports on the current status of accounts. In most banks, these transactions are entered via terminals, which are connected, to a central computer for centralised processing. The tellers have revolutionised banking activity by offering 24 hour service to customers and more flexibility in cash deposits and withdrawals.
Cheque clearing and processing
Computerised cheques clearing and processing is made possible due to the special characters on cheques printed using ink containing magnetic particles. The characters identify the bank in which the cheque is drawn, the customer account number, the cheque number and the amount of the cheque. Using a magnetic ink character reader, these details are automatically entered into a computer for cheque processing. Manual processing used to take lots of time but with computer systems, millions of cheques are processed every day hence improving efficiency in service delivery to customers.
Electronic funds transfer (EFT)
Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) is the movement of money using information and communication technology. When a cash dispenser is used, the amount withdrawn by a customer is deducted from his/her account. Another example is when paying for goods and services using a credit card. Payment is transferred electronically from the customers account to the recipients account.
Computers are becoming more and more popular in retail stores such as supermarkets, distributor outlets etc. Computers are used in such stores for:
- Stock control
- Transactions handling at the electronic point of sale terminals (EPOS)
A computerised stock control system enables a user to manage his/her stock more efficiently. This system is used to track what is in stock and what needs reordering so as to reduce the risk of under stocking or overstocking. Overstocking ties up valuable space and capital that could have been used for other valuable items. On the other hand under stocking causes customer dissatisfaction.
Transactions handling at the electronic point of sale terminals
An electronic point- of -sale (EPOS) is a computer terminal used in retail stores to input and output data at the point where sales are transacted e.g. at the supermarket checkout counter. An EPOS terminal has all facilities of a normal cash register, but with additional direct data capture devices, e.g. bar code reader, card reader, a monitor and a receipt printer. In such retail stores, goods are identified by means of bar codes. For each item, a record is stored in secondary storage medium containing: the item number, item name or description, quantity in stock and the price.
Transactions at the point of sale terminal may involve the following steps:
- The bar code reader (wand) is passed over the items bar code. The bar code is automatically converted to the item number, e.g. 2160, which is read to the computer.
- Using this number, the computer searches for the item with a corresponding number in the products database.
- Once the record is found, its description and price lookup file is used for processing the sale.
The advantages of electronic point of sales terminal systems are:
- Correct prices are used at the checkout counter.
- Faster since the attendant does not have to enter details manually.
Reservation systems are distributed networked systems that are used mainly to make bookings in areas such as airlines, hotels, car-rental, theatres etc. Bookings are made from a remote terminal connected to a centralised computer database. To access the database, a customer makes enquiries via the remote terminal connected to the central computer.
For example to make airline booking enquiries such as finding out the seats reservation a customer uses a remote terminal in the nearest booking office. The response is immediately available to the customer within a few seconds.
Such a computerised reservation system is referred to as online enquiry since an individual directly requests for information through a terminal from a central computer and receives an immediate response.
Initially most educational institutions used computers for administrative tasks such as compiling examinational reports, writing memos and accounting purposes. Computers are playing an increasingly important role in educational institutions in the following ways:
- Computer aided instruction (CAI)
- Computer aided learning (CAL)
- Electronic learning (e-Learning)
- Computer based simulation
Computer aided instruction (CAI)
Computer aided instruction refers to the use of a computer to learn, drill and practice particular educational principles. For example when learning a new concept in foreign language such as Japanese, the learner is presented with the explanation of the concept. The computer then presents questions from which the learner is to select the correct answer.
Some CAI programs present learning content in form of educational games, which makes learning more fun especially for young children. A good example is a typing tutor program. Figure 2.3 below is an onscreen illustration of a sample typing tutor program that teaches a person to learn typing skills.
Computer aided learning (CAL)
Another educational technique that uses computers is computer aided learning. Unlike computer aided instruction, which is meant to drill the learner, computer aided learning present’s educational materials the way a teacher does in a classroom. For example, the program may pose a question and depending on the learner’s performance, it may present new content or revisit the topic.
In order to make learning effective, most computer aided learning programs have clear graphical presentations such as video clips and voice for demonstrating or explaining difficult concepts.
Electronic learning (e-Learning)
In e-Learning, lessons and lectures are presented from a central site and the presentation is transmitted to remote conference terminals or displayed on TV screens. The learner can also access learning material on the internet, sit for online examinations and receive results the same way. Learners therefore do not need to go physically to a college.
Computer based simulation
Computer based simulation refers to the science of representing the behavior of a real-life situation by using computerised models. Simulation has become very popular in learning and training institutions. For example, in distant or e-Learning, where a learner is not in physical contact with a trainer, simulation software can be used to provide the learner with clear illustrations about a certain concept or skill.
Simulation programs are mostly used in educational areas where practical skills have to be learnt like training drivers, pilots, engineers etc. have to be instructed using a virtual environment.
Communication refers to the distribution of information or data from one person or location to another. Effective and efficient data communication is achieved by use of high-speed electronic devices such as computers, cell-phones, radios and television. This integration of computerised electronic devices and telecommunication infrastructure for the purpose of communication is referred to as information and communication technology (lCT). Therefore ICT not only refers to computers but also all other devices that are used for effective and efficient communication. Examples of communication systems are:
- Facsmile (Fax).
- Radio Comunication
- Television set.
- Video conferencing.
A facsmile machine, in short a fax, is a telecommunication device used to send documents via telephone lines. A document is placed in the machine, scanned and converted into analog form then transmitted over the telephone line. The receiving fax machine converts the analog data into the original softcopy and prints a hardcopy. To send fax over the Internet, a special modem, called a fax modem is attached to the sending and receiving computers. This eliminates the need for a stand alone fax machine.
Computers can be used in radio broadcasting stations to do the following:
- Record and manage radio programmes meant for broadcasting.
- Manage the radio transmission and track performance. Most transmissions equipment are computerized for easy troubleshooting and operation.
- Automate the running of the selected programmes.
- Create slides, simulated objects and sound effects when preparing electronic and printed media advertisements.
- Download information from Internet that can be used in preparing programmes such as international news.
Television sets (TV) have become increasingly important in information and communication technology because they are much more available at homes and many places than computers. Data or information is transmitted via a TV channel the same way the channel is used to broadcast conversional TV programs. The most common types of data transmitted via TV include: teletext (ceefax) and videotex (view data).
Teletext refers to a computerised service whereby news and other information are provided on television screens to subscribers. A TV is configured using a special add-on card or adapter. The subscriber can browse for information using a remote controlled device. However teletext is a one way communication (simplex) which means that the subscriber cannot communicate back to the service provider.
Videotex (view data)
Unlike teletext, videotex also known as view data is a two way communication service half duplex over a telephone line or cable television channel. A subscriber can interact with the service provider database and the information is displayed on a home TV screen. View data is used in reservation bookings, ordering for goods and services as well as sending electronic mails.
Video conferencing refers to the use of computers, a digital video camera, audio capturing equipment and communication networks to enable people in different locations to see and talk to one another.
Each participant’s computer is attached with a video camera (camcorder), speakers and a microphone. With such devices and appropriate communication software, a person can participate in a virtual conference room. In such a room, all participants can see each other on the computer screen as if they were seated in a real conference room.
Video conferencing communication is popular in TV broadcasting stations where a field reporter interacts with newscasters. It is also popular in organisations where top managers in different geographical locations hold meeting via the Internet or the organistions intranet.
Telecommuting is a term used to refer to a situation where an employee works usually at home using a computer connected to the workplace network. Telecommuting takes advantage of the growing communication networks to reduce unnecessary travel to the place of work. This in turn translates to reduced travel expenses and less stress due to commuting inconveniences such as traffic jams.
The Internet has become one of the most popular means of information transfer and efficient communication. Some of the services available on the Internet are:
- World wide web (www).
- Electronic mail (e-mail).
World wide web (www)
World wide web refers to a collection of web pages, which may be made up of text, images, animations, sounds and video held on web servers. One can access the information using a computer or any other communication device such as a mobile phone. However, for a mobile phone to be used to access the Internet, it must have the wireless application protocol (WAP). A computer connected to the Internet or a WAPenabled mobile phone allows the user to access a wide range of information such as news, entertainment, banking, reservations, business news, e-mails among others.
This is a very fast and efficient means of sending and receiving messages, data, files or graphics. Once you subscribe for Internet services through a service provider, you can send or receive e-mails to or from anyone connected to the Internet using a computer or a WAP-enabled cellular phone.
The application of computer technology in industrial or manufacturing processes has become one of the most effective methods of automated production. This has resulted in tremendous improvement in productivity.
Industrial plants such as motor vehicle manufacturers, chemical plants, refineries and mining plants use computer systems in a number of ways. Some include:
- Computer aided design and manufacturing.
- Process control.
Computer aided design/computer aided manufacturing
Computer aided design Computer aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) is an integrated system that allows products that have been designed using design application Software, to be transmitted into an automated manufacturing system for the product to be manufactured as per the computer model. For example design of motor vehicle brake pads involves designing the model using computer aided design software then feeding it to an automated machine which engineers the required shape and dimensions as per the specifications. One application of computer aided manufacturing is the use of robots to carry out assembly line operations. A robot is a computer controlled device that emulates a human being in carrying out operations that would otherwise be hazardous, repetitive and boring to a human being. Such operations may include welding, lifting heavy objects; spray painting of vehicle bodies, removing red-hot materials from furnaces etc.
Simulation allows some activities that would otherwise be expensive and dangerous in real life situation to be put under test. For example, a car or plane crash test simulation is the use of a virtual model on the computer screen that attempts to represent the real situation or object. This enables the manufacturers identify the weaknesses of the real situation or object hence put the correct reinforcement to their designs. E.g. motor vehicle seat belts can be tested for their effectiveness in case of a car crash using a computer model. The general name of using computer models in such circumstances is known as non destructive testing (NDT).
Computerised process control refers to the use of a computer system to control an ongoing physical process especially in manufacturing. Such process controls may include regulating temperature, pressure, fluid flow etc. Computerised process control is mostly used in petroleum refineries, chemical plants and other manufacturing companies to manage machine intensive processes.
Scientific and research systems
Computers have a wide variety of applications in science, research and technology. Some of which are:
- Weather forecasting.
- Medical research.
- Military and space exploration science.
Modern weather forecasting techniques have been automated using computerised systems; hence weather predictions are more accurate and reliable. Due to the large volume of data collected from rainfall, air pressure, humidity, temperature, wind speed and cloud cover, computers help in analysing, processing and predicting weather patterns using such data.
Another application of computers in weather forecasting is the use of geographical information system (GIS) and the geographical positioning system (GPS). This system represents geographical data in graphical form by positioning and superimposing it on the world map. Geographical information system is used to represent data on weather patterns in a clearer and coherent manner on a world map. Similarly, the path of storms can be accurately tracked and predicted. Such information is very important for the aviation industry and many other sectors of the economy.
In health sciences, health professionals use computer technology for diagnosis, keeping patients’ records, inventory control etc. Computers are now being used to control devices that help to care for the handicapped such as the deaf, blind, bed ridden etc. In some health institutions, a more specialised computer system referred to as an expert system may be in use. An expert system is an interactive system that generates conclusions from captured data by comparing it with a set of rules held in a database called a knowledge base. The system emulates the reasoning of a human expert in a narrow field of specialisation. Expert systems have been developed to help medical professionals diagnose illnesses more accurately in the absence of human experts.
Military and space exploration science
The dynamic growth in military, space science and exploration would not be a reality today were it not for computer technology. Space exploration and military research bodies such as America’s national aeronautics and space administration (NASA) make extensive use of computer systems, for research, design, development and control of unmanned spaceships, aeroplanes and missiles.
Libraries use computerised systems for a number of tasks. Examples are:
- Lending system
- Inventory control system.
- Cataloguing system.
The library lending system manages the issuance and return of borrowed reading materials. Books, magazines, journals, reports etc. are given unique identification numbers or codes. Once a member borrows a book, his/her details are recorded. When the book is returned the borrower’s record is updated to reflect the new status.
This involves use of computers to manage stock, which includes checking for books currently in the shelves and those on high demand for the purpose of adding more. Similarly, books that have become obsolete can be retired to the archives.
A catalogue is a collection of cards with information about each book or reference materials found in the library. These cards may be kept in a drawer sorted in alphabetic order either by title or author name. To enhance service delivery and efficiency, computerised cataloguing has replaced the manual cards catalogue. This electronic catalogue is updated constantly when new reference materials are acquired.
The advancement in multimedia technology has produced computers that can be used in recreational and entertainment. Some application areas of computers in recreation and entertainment include:
- Music and video
Games have come a long way from the simple solitaire to modem simulated 3D games. Digital video disks (DVDs) and three-dimensional (3D) multimedia games are now possible on personal computers. There are computer games that simulate sports such as driving, war combat etc. such games gives the player maximum pleasure in a virtual environment on the screen.
Although some games can be played using other accessories e.g. on the TV screen using a game console, such games have been developed using computers.
Music and video
Video compact discs (VCD) and digital video discs (DVD) have become a common feature in the entertainment industry.
In music industry, computers are used in recording, synthesizing, editing and adding special effects to music.
In video industry, computers are used to produce highly simulated and animated movies, generate scenes and actors. Some movies use a lot of computer generated images that make the movie interesting.
Computers play an increasingly important role in transportation industry in areas such as:
- Automobile traffic control
- Air traffic control
Automobile traffic control
In busy towns where there are round about and road junctions, you will mostly find traffic control lights. These lights control both human and motor vehicle traffic using the three lighting system i.e. green, red and amber. These lights are either controlled using a small clock switch or a computer system. The clock switches the lights at regular intervals. However, some clock controllers are intelligent enough to vary the frequency of light change according to traffic direction and volume during rush hours. Computerised traffic light systems have sensor pads laid underneath the road which detect the pattern of the traffic flow. The collected data is sent to a computer system which detects and analyses the traffic flow and builds up a simulated image of the actual scene. Control signals can then be output to the traffic lights or motorists through their receiver devices to vary the light timings or redirect traffic to less busy roads.
Air traffic control
Computers are used to monitor air traffic movement, take off and landing of crafts. This has helped minimise human control errors and mistakes I that could result from human controlled systems. The computer technology used to direct aircrafts to follow the shortest path between two locations is known as geographical positioning system (GPS).
Computers are widely used to control and guide the paths taken by spaceships and water vessels as they travel to distant lands. The geographical positioning system is also used in shipping control.
Because microcomputers are nowadays affordable, most people are using computers at home for preparing domestic budgets, entertainment, research and teaching children on educational concepts.
Office expert systems
This is an information system usually developed and installed in the office of a human expert or knowledge worker. A knowledge worker is a person in any field who is formally trained to apply a specific set of knowledge in his work. Such as a system is capable of simulating the decision making process and intelligent problem solution just like a human expert. It also has a set of rules that help it to make conclusions when some parameters are entered.
Without proper marketing, a business cannot survive in a competitive environment; hence computers are being used in a number of ways to enhance marketing. These include:
- Electronic commerce or e-business
- Electronic presentations
E-commerce is a new way of doing business where the transactions are carried out electronically without physical interaction between the seller and buyer. For example a customer may decide to buy an item through the Internet by visiting the supplier’s web site, selecting the item and placing it in a virtual shopping tray. The website tracks the whole session as the customer chooses various items and calculates the total bill. Payment is then made through a cheque, credit card or through electronic funds transfer. Once the payment is made, the item is shipped to the customer.
This method of trade has enabled people to do business without much movement hence saving money and time.
Using computers, marketing agents can create exciting presentations concerning the products of a business and present them to the audience using presentation software. Electronic presentation adds value to traditional marketing techniques because they are attractive.
Using simulation, presentation and animation software, it is possible to design catchy advert materials and video clips. Such materials can then be displayed on billboards, broadcasted over a television or placed on the Internet.
Virtual or artificial reality
The term virtual reality (VR) or artificial reality refers to a condition in which a person becomes psychologically immersed in an artificial environment generated by a computer system. Other terms used instead of virtual reality are cyberspace, virtual worlds and virtual environment. To achieve this effect, the following interactive sensory equipment are used:
- Head mounted display/headgear
- Body suit
- Virtual reality software
Head mounted display (HMD)/headgear
A headgear is made up of two tiny display screens and sound systems that channel images and sound from the source to the eyes and ears thus presenting a stereo three dimensional sound effect in the virtual world. The wearer of the headgear is able to look around in the virtual environment.
A boom is an alternative to the often-uncomfortable head gear. Screen, optical and sound systems are housed in a box. The user looks into the box through the two screens to see the virtual world.
Gloves worn on the hands allow the user to navigate through the virtual world and interact with virtual objects. The gloves have sensors that collect data about the movement of the hands and relay the data into the system. They give the wearer a sense of touch in the virtual world.
A body suit, worn during virtual reality session is made up of conductor wires wound in a rubber suit. The wires sense the body movement and relay the data into the virtual reality system which in turn adjusts the position of the user in the virtual reality world.
Virtual reality software
Virtual reality software such as body electric gives the wearer of the sensory devices an interactive virtual sensory experience that makes him/her feel as if he/she is in a real world. The software is responsible for simulation of all the aspects of the virtual reality world.
Application of virtual reality
Virtual reality is used to represent any three dimensional object or ideas that are either real or abstract.
Real objects include buildings, landscapes, underwater shipwrecks, spacecrafts, human anatomy, sculptures, crime scene reconstruction, solar system etc. For example, a house can be simulated before the actual building is physically set up. A client can be allowed to virtually move through the house, pull drawers and touch objects all in a computer generated environment
Other applications of virtual reality include entertainment, training in areas such as medicine, military, equipment operations, education, design evaluation, prototyping, simulation and assembly of sequences, assistance to the handicapped etc.
Law enforcement systems
Today, crime has become very sophisticated hence very difficult to deal with. Since immediate and accurate information is very crucial in crime detection, biometric analysis using computers is becoming a preferred tool in this area. Biometric analysis refers to the study, measurement and analysis of human biological characteristics. Biometric devices attached to a computer are used to identify people by recognising one or more specific attributes such as fingerprints, voice, lips, facial features like iris colour etc. Some of the devices that can be used here are video cameras and biometric scanners.
Field work report
Visit one of the information and communication technology (ICT) application areas discussed in this chapter and write a detailed report of about five pages on the use of computers in the area. The report should include the following:
- Title page
- Table of contents
- A detailed description of information and communication technology implementation in the area of field work study