Mr. ST Nandasara is a lecturer at the University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC) and the Coordinator of the Advanced Digital Media Technology Center at UCSC. Mr. Nandasara graduated from the University of Colombo in 1979. From 1983, Mr. Nandasara underwent three years of postgraduate training in Statistics, Computer Applications and Computer Science at the University of Reading and University of Essex in the UK. He also completed a course of instruction in “Computer Applications and Statistics, and Computer Science”, under the British Government’s Technical Cooperation Programs.
A key milestone in Mr. Nandasara’s career was his involvement through the University of Colombo in assisting the Commissioner of Elections to process the results of the Presidential elections in November 1982. Mr. Nandasara played a key role in processing and delivering the first ever “Computer-aided live telecast of the Sri Lankan Presidential Election Results” and the “Computer-aided live telecast of the 1982 National Referendum Results”.
Mr. Nandasara has also contributed greatly towards the arena of local language computing; he developed the tri-lingual word processor ‘Wadan Tharuwa’ (වදන් තරුව) and later in 1994, he developed the typesetting software ‘Athwela’ (අත්වැල) with trilingual support for Ventura Publisher. He was also a member of the Working Committee for Recommending Standards for the use of Sinhala and Tamil Script in Computer Technology of the previous apex Government body on ICT, the Council for Information Technology (CINTEC). He was also a delegate from Sri Lanka at a crucial meeting of the Unicode Consortium held in Crete, Greece in 1997. At this meeting, after intense discussions the proposal for Sinhala encoding forwarded by the Sri Lankan delegation prevailed with a few minor amendments.
Mr. Nandasara also assisted Prof. VK Samaranayake in institutional development; he was involved in the setting up of the Institute of Computer Technology under the University of Colombo. In this regard, he assisted the Japanese missions that visited Sri Lanka from 1988 to 1990. He was also involved in setting up the Advanced Digital Media Technology Center of which he is the Coordinator. Later he was involved in setting up the University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC) which encompassed the Department of Computer Science under the Faculty of Science and the Institute of Computer Technology. In 2017, UCSC celebrated 50 years of computing in 2017 paying tribute to Prof. VK Samaranayake.
Video in Brief
Mr. S.T. Nandasara is a lecturer and Coordinator of the Advanced Digital Media Technology Center at the University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC).
Mr. Nandasara entered the Faculty of Arts of the University of Colombo in 1975. He was selected for a special degree course in Statistics which had been designed by the Department of Mathematics of the Faculty of Science. The course was designed in such way that graduates could obtain employment in the IT industry immediately after graduation. During his first year Prof. VK Samaranayake was his lecturer in Statistics and in Computer Programming. Throughout this course, students had to carry out many surveys out in the field, collect data and carry out statistical analysis. During this period there were no facilities for computing at the University of Colombo. But during the 4th year students needed a computer for analysis. Therefore, Prof. VK Samaranayake obtained access for the students to use the IBM computer at the Department of Census and Statistics, for data processing.
Introduction to computing:
In the Department of Mathematics, there was a small punch card machine and the students punched data and programs, step by step on to the punch cards. Thereafter, the cards were taken to the Department of Census and Statistics. This is how Mr. Nandasara commenced computing. However, within the course that he followed he had the opportunity of learning FORTRAN programming.
In 1978, the University of Colombo received a HP computer which had a FORTRAN 1V compiler. Mr. Nandasara could now type FORTRAN code and it was also possible to print because there was a small thermal printer. The computer had only a single-line display. Dr. Kevin Seneviratne was Mr. Nandasara’s tutor and he trained Mr. Nandasara in using the computer. During Mr. Nandasara’s final year he had to conduct an island-wide survey on housing conditions of various communities. Since this involved a lot of data, he had to use the computer daily.
In 1979 Mr. Nandasara completed his undergraduate studies and was seeking employment. He had a break when Prof. VK Samaranayake requested him to go to the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Colombo and meet Prof. NDW Lionel, Professor of Pharmacology, on a WHO project. Consequently Mr. Nandasara was selected for a very interesting assignment at the Department of Pharmacology. Prof Lionel’s intention was to analyze data from the prescriptions of patients at the General Hospital, Colombo which would indicate the quantity of drugs to be imported to the country. Since there was a lot of data to be processed, Mr. Nandasara needed a computer. He used the punch card machine until the Department of Mathematics of the Faculty of Science received a Data General NOVA/4 minicomputer in 1981, as a grant from the UK under the Colombo Plan. This multi-user computer with about 16 terminals had a COBOL compiler, a FORTRAN file compiler, and also a RPG II compiler. Thereafter Mr. Nandasara used this machine for processing. When Prof. Lionel passed away after two years, Prof. Samaranayake appointed Mr. Nandasara first as a Research Assistant and later as a Statistical Officer. He was the main person handling the Data General computer at the Statistical Unit of the University of Colombo. Later, Prof. Samaranayake requested him to conduct lectures on Statistics and also on computer programming in Sinhala at the Faculty of Arts.
Mr. Nandasara recalls that there were no multimedia projectors at that time and he used overhead projectors with slides created on transparent sheets.
Processing national election results through computers:
In 1982 a key milestone was reached. Prof. VK Samaranayake thought of using computers for processing Election results, specifically for processing the results of the Presidential Elections held in November 1982. In 1982, Prof. Roger Stern of the University of Reading, UK arrived in Sri Lanka with a BBC computer with about 32 K memory, no hard disk and which used only floppy disks but with color capabilities. It was decided to use this machine to display the Election Results through the Rupavahini TV. Using this computer, the University of Colombo was able to assist the Commissioner of Elections in processing the results of the Presidential Elections held in November 1982. Mr. Nandasara and staff of the Department of Mathematics undertook the responsibility in designing and programming the results screen for telecasting results. Thus, Mr. Nandasara played a key role in processing and delivering the first “Computer-aided live telecast of the Presidential Election Results” and the “Computer-aided live telecast of the 1982 National Referendum Results”. Election Results were displayed on National TV and the country was made aware of the fact that computers could be used in processing election results and releasing the results as graphic displays for telecasting.
Local Language Computing:
This computer could handle only English characters. Dr. Kevin Seneviratne thought of developing Sinhala letters to be used with this computer. Staff members therefore created a set of Sinhala characters and the program parade of ITN TV was displayed in Sinhala. This was in 1983.
In July 1983, Mr. Nandasara secured employment as a Systems Engineer at Data General Corporation, USA. He discussed this Prof. Samaranayake who advised him to stay back in Sri Lanka. Mr. Nandasara heeded Prof. Samaranayake’s advice and informed his potential employer that he would not be taking up his appointment. Mr. Nandasara was sent thereafter to the UK for higher studies. He underwent three years of postgraduate training in Statistics, Computer Applications and Computer Science at the University of Reading and the University of Essex in the UK. This was a changing point in his career. Computer Science was not available for study at the University of Colombo at that time. He returned to Sri Lanka in 1996. Around this time, IBM released the personal computers IBM PC XT and IBM PC AT. Mr. Nandasara, on Prof. Samaranayake’s instructions commenced development of ICT in Sinhala, specifically reprogramming the IBM PC’s Basic Input / Output system (BIOS). His intention was to convert the display from English to Sinhala. Dr. Thaweesak Koanantakool from the University of Thammasat in Thailand was involved in developing the use of ICT in the Thai language. Mr. Nandasara therefore studied the development of ICT and local languages at the University of Thammasat with the intention of carrying out similar development with regard to Sinhala. He learnt how the Thai language was used on a desktop IBM PC XT, returned to Sri Lanka and commenced development. One issue was that the IBM PC XT did not have sufficient resolution for Sinhala. IBM released the video graphic array card VGA, with very high resolution. Thereafter it was possible to get Sinhala characters displayed perfectly. He worked together with the University of Thammasat (although based in Sri Lanka) and managed to reprogram the entire VGA card to handle both Sinhala and Tamil. This was in 1989.
He was able to get the first basic input / output system for Sinhala and Tamil where it was possible to type in Sinhala on the command prompt and change the language in the computer using the combination of keys control shift, because there was no Alt key on the keyboard at that time. Now at present, the keys Altshift are used to change the language in the computer. The operating system was reprogrammed for using Sinhala and Tamil and it was named S-BIOS for Sinhala and T-BIOS for Tamil. Thereafter Mr. Nandasara developed the tri-lingual word processor ‘Wadan Tharuwa’ (වදන් තරුව) using the C programming language. The name was given by Prof. Samaranayake. This product was marketed by companies such as John Keells Holdings, CBA Pvt. Ltd. Fentons Computers etc.
In 1994, Mr. Nandasara developed the typesetting software ‘Athwela’ (අත්වැල) with trilingual support (Sinhala, Tamil, and English) for Ventura Publisher, an early desktop publishing package. This product was marketed by the Computing Services Center of the Institute of Computer Technology, University of Colombo. With this it was possible to create complex documents. Later, in 1995, Mr. Nandasara developed the ‘Sarasavi’ (සරසවි) packages for Windows95/98 and thereafter developed a Unicode compatible version “WinMASS Sarasavi”.
Mr. Nandasara was also instrumental in the development of the tri-lingual national web window www.lk which was launched on 15th September 1996.
The Council for Information Technology (CINTEC) the former apex Government agency on ICT (which was ICTA’s predecessor) had set up Working Committee for Recommending Standards for the use of Sinhala and Tamil Script in Computer Technology. At this stage the Committee was involved in defining a Sinhala Character set for use in IT. The draft that was prepared was approved by the Council of CINTEC on the advice of the Working Committee. The standard Sinhala encoding SLASCII, (Sri Lanka Sinhala Standard Code for Information Interchange), was approved by the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI) as Sri Lanka Standard 1134 (SLS 1134 : 1996). The SLASCII standard differed in several aspects from Unicode for Sinhala approved later in 1998. Mr. Nandasara’s work was in compliance to the SLASCII standard. Mr. Nandasara was involved in the development of Sinhala encoding standards. He was a member of SLSI’s Sectoral Committee on IT, and he worked closely with the work being carried out by the Unicode Consortium. In 1997, Mr. Nandasara, with Prof. JB Disanayaka visited the meeting of the Unicode Consortium held in Crete, Greece. Mr. Michael Everson was a key contributor to the work done by the Unicode Consortium. The Sinhala code page was discussed at this meeting. After intense discussions the proposal forwarded by the Sri Lankan delegation prevailed with a few minor amendments.
In March 1998, Mr. Nandasara visited Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, Seattle, USA and discussed the implementation of complex scripts with regard to Sinhala language development on the NT Operating System with the Microsoft NT Developer Group. In parallel, he says that there was a Japanese Group which was working on the development of Sinhala on the Linux Operating System.
Mr. Nandasara reminisces that the work on local language development which commenced at CINTEC under the leadership of Prof. VK Samaranayake, continued later at the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka under the leadership of Professor Gihan Dias who was a Program Director at ICTA at ICTA’s inception. The Working Committee for Recommending Standards for the use of Sinhala and Tamil Script in Computer Technology which commenced at CINTEC continued at ICTA as the Local Languages Working Group (LLWG).
On institutional development, Mr. Nandasara recalls that Prof. VK Samaranayake had a dream of setting up a Department of Computer Science under the Faculty of Science and this had been done in 1985. Thereafter, Professor Samaranayake had forwarded a proposal to the Japanese Government through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to set up an independent institution under the University with financial and administrative autonomy. Several missions from Japan came over to Sri Lanka for discussions. It was at a meeting held in November 1986 that a decision was to be made on whether the project would be implemented in Sri Lanka or in Malaysia. This had been a crucial time. It was necessary to convince the Japanese mission that the institution was extremely important to Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan team succeeded, resulting in the Institute of Computer Technology (ICT) established under the University of Colombo. Mr. Nandasara was involved in assisting the Japanese missions such as Mutual Consultation Survey Team, the Technical Guidance Team and the Project Evaluation Team that visited Sri Lanka from 1988 to 1990.
Mr. Nandasara also worked towards setting up the “A Multimedia Technology Training and Development Center”. This work resulted in setting up the Advanced Digital Media Technology Center implemented by JICA as a Project Type Technical Cooperation Program between the Government of Japan and the Government of Sri Lanka.
The Institute of Computer Technology focused on developing people needed for the industry, and not specifically in developing scientists. There was also a Department of Computer Science under the Faculty of Science. There was expertise within both entities, therefore Prof. Samaranayake’s objective was to merge these two entities and work together.
Consequently, the University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC) was established in 2002. The staff strength at present is high; Mr. Nandasara stated that there are more than 50 academic staff, and the teaching capacity is one of the largest in Sri Lanka. UCSC celebrated 50 years of computing in 2017 paying tribute to Prof. VK Samaranayake. He states that in 1967 a milestone was reached when Prof. Samaranayake commenced teaching programming to a group of students. It has been a very successful journey. In concluding, Mr. Nandasara says “to achieve this we worked together, we worked hard day and night sometimes sleeping in the lab, we worked for the Government, we worked for the public, we handled international events and that work has yielded results which all can see”.
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