Foster, (Frederic) Gordon (1921–2010) statistician and informatics pioneer, was born on 24 February 1921 in Belfast, one of three children of Robert Foster, motor garage manager, and his wife Florence Evelynn (née Magee). The family were then living on Eglantine Avenue, Lisburn Road. Educated at Belmont (1930–31) and Strandtown (1931–3) primary schools in Belfast, Gordon won a city scholarship to RBAI (1933–9), where he was house captain, a prefect, captain of boxing in his final year, and a distinguished athlete and rugby player. After studying mathematics at QUB and graduating BA (1942), Foster was recruited to work as a code-breaker in Bletchley Park during the second world war. He continued his studies after the war at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was greatly influenced by a lecture given there by the founder of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, expounding his work on information theory, communication theory, automation, robotics and computer control. During his Oxford years, he received a demonstration at the Victoria University of Manchester of the Manchester Mark 1 computer from the mathematician Alan Turing, who, after working at Bletchley Park, generated the theoretical foundations of modern computing. Foster graduated MA and D.Phil. from Oxford (1952/3); his doctoral thesis was entitled 'Some problems in the mathematical theory of probability'.
Foster's early research addressed game theory and the computation of outcomes in chemin-de-fer, the original form of baccarat, played with six decks of cards. Appointed assistant lecturer in statistics at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1952, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society (1954), and from January 1958 was a lecturer and university reader in statistical computing at the LSE, where he was encouraged by Maurice Kendall and Roy Allen, leading lights of the statistics department, to engage with the emergent computing discipline. To this end, he spent considerable time at the Institute for Numerical Analysis of the National Bureau of Standards in Los Angeles, USA, working on SWAC, their digital computer. He recalled of the early development of computers: 'It was something of an achievement to get a programme actually working. It was useful to have a handy screwdriver … and to know where to kick the machine if it stuck' (Foster (1968), 2). He co-wrote (with I. Elce), the journal article 'A simulation programme for machine maintenance, telephone traffic and stock models' (Operational Research Quarterly, xiv, no. 3 (Sept. 1963)). In August 1964 he was appointed professor of computational methods at the LSE. Contributing to the early development of the field of operations research, Foster's teaching and research addressed pure computational statistics alongside the computer science needs of social scientists (traditionally served by the LSE statistics department), which helped him secure significant funding from the UK National Computer Council.
Commissioned by the UK Publishers Association to develop a unified, standardised book cataloguing system, in 1965 Foster devised the 'standard book numbering code', which became the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). In 1967, a nine-digit code was adopted across the UK and Ireland to manage publishing inventory; as the system was extended globally, this was increased to ten digits in 1969, and to thirteen digits in 2007. Foster's system, deliberately extensible by design to ensure backwards compatibility and future expansion, facilitates the unique identification of printed books (and their varying, distinct editions) by their publisher, country of origin, language, author and editor; any alteration of such attributes – apart from price – even of cover art or binding, generates a new ISBN. Incorporating an error correction and resolution algorithm, completely precluding transcription and transposition errors, Foster outlined his elegant system in Standard numbering in the book trade (1967).
On his appointment as professor of statistics at TCD in October 1968, Foster continued to extol the possible educational, economic and social benefits of computer technology. That year he gave the second Roy Geary (qv) lecture of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), in which he stressed the growing uses of information technology and the implications for society as a whole (published as Computers, statistics and planning: systems or chaos?). His ESRI report Computers in Ireland (1971) urged the development of an indigenous Irish software industry to drive exports, and the creation of a public sector bureau empowered to overcome departmental rivalry and bureaucratic resistance to the adoption of computing practices. Pressing the case for computing education in schools, with considerable acuity Foster recognised how computing (the automation of calculation) was becoming information technology (the application of sophisticated tools and processes to structured data and information). A progenitor of informatics (concerning the structure, properties and communication of information), he was a co-founder and first president of the Irish Futures Society (1981), which sought to explore the inevitable application of advanced computing methods to complex decision-making realms, as the costs of information storage, processing and analysis on vast scales would inevitably approach zero.
Elected a TCD fellow (June 1971), he was from 1971 dean of mathematical and engineering sciences, head of the department of statistics and chair of the School of Systems and Data Studies (as it was renamed in 1982–3). He also developed an influential operations research laboratory, which engaged with the public and private sectors in applied research. Although formally retiring from academic life in 1991, he lectured for the remainder of the decade, continuing to influence generations of students.
Foster took a particular interest in the application of information technology to socio-economic development issues in developing countries. In 1977 he established an M.Sc. in systems development for students from developing countries, and engaged with the international aid and development communities in a range of research projects, especially in evaluating the socio-economic impact of informatics. He edited Informatics and industrial development (1983), emanating from the March 1981 conference held in Dublin which explored the socio-economic benefits of information technology for developing countries. As a consultant with the United Nations International Development Organisation (UNIDO), he led a joint informatics training programme between TCD and the United Nations University, Tokyo, Japan, targeted at scientists, researchers and administrators in developing countries (1985–9). With fellow TCD statistician Eileen Drew, he co-wrote Information technology in selected countries: reports from Ireland, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania (1994) for the UN University.
Such work confronted him with the difficulty of undertaking basic communication with colleagues in the developing world, which he saw as a communications problem to be addressed by informatics. With funding from Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs, he founded the independent, non-profit Informatics Development Institute (renamed the Informatics and Social Development Research Institute (c.1997)) in Dublin to promote the use of low-cost, robust information and communications technology in the developing world, and, with Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), established educational outreach links with partners in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Winning European Commission funding (1991), the ensuing TRINET project enabled access to the nascent internet for poor and remote parts of the globe. From a ground station Foster constructed in his TCD office in Lincoln Place, from second-hand components costing less than IR£3,000, TRINET linked to low-earth-orbit satellites, in turn linking to local radio aerial networks in remote parts of the globe. TRINET thus allowed the internet superhighway to 'lead up a few muddy lanes as well' (Ir. Times, 26 February 2011). During the 1995 Ebola virus outbreak in Zaire (DR Congo), doctors at the remote Vanga hospital, near Kikwit, used TRINET's infrastructure (and Foster's Dublin ground station) to communicate with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (Ir. Times, 11 December 1995).
Foster's research ranged across theoretical and applied statistics, information systems design, modelling computer performance, operations research and management science. For three decades at TCD, he taught both undergraduate and postgraduate statisticians, engineers, mathematicians and management scientists. He published papers in Acta Mathematica, Annals of Mathematical Statistics, Biometrika, the Computer Journal, the European Journal of Operational Research, Operational Research Quarterly and elsewhere, addressing pure and applied physics, statistics and mathematics. In 2006, as chair of the Informatics Development Institute, and in conjunction with DIT's National Satellite Services Centre, Foster won funding from the European Space Agency to develop and assess methods to sense and identify small earth movements that were precursors to landslides.
Invoking Blaire Pascal's conception of infinity, Foster commented in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident that, however small the chance of such a catastrophe, it may be unacceptable to mankind: 'when the consequences are too momentous, the estimation of small chances becomes pointless and the risk cannot be taken' (Ir. Times, 22 May 1986). A quaker in religion, Foster was a keen yachtsman and reader; his Irish Times obituary listed one of his interests as 'lateral thinking' (Ir. Times, 26 February 2011). He married in the UK (14 September 1948) Gwendolen Hollander, with whom he had three children. He died on 20 December 2010 at the Blackrock Hospice, Co. Dublin, and after a quaker funeral was cremated on 23 December at Mt Jerome crematorium, Harold's Cross, Dublin.