UTS Sydney has undergone a digital transformation

UTS Sydney has undergone a digital transformation

Ranked Australia’s top young university and ranked 10th globally in the QS Top 50 Under 50 in 2019, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) is a leading public technology university, with 45,000 students and 3,800 staff.  UTS is known for its emphasis on real-world research, as well as its unique approach to learning and cutting-edge facilities. Since its inception UTS has been founded on strong industry links, and the exchange of resources and expertise with its industry partners continues to be a core part of its identity today. This is seen in research partnerships with industry and a strong practice of students completing industry internships, in line with UTS’s model of practice-oriented learning. This all translates into a complex set of requirements for IT support.

“The technology environment at a modern university is complex” says UTS Chief Information Officer, Christine Burns. “On one hand we are running a significant business and, like large organisations in other industries, we face challenges such as how to automate and streamline processes, improve staff experience, and get the most from marketing technologies. On the other hand, we have research-specific challenges such as supporting extremely large and diverse data sets (and having these large data sets move around our network), and learning-specific challenges such as a growing campus filled with cutting edge audio-visual technology.”

The smart application of these varied technologies has been integral to the continued growth and success of UTS. On many levels the university has undergone a vast amount of change in recent years, and the digital transformation led by Burns, supported by Deputy CIOs Peter Gale and David O’Connor, has played a crucial part.

In 2008, the university began its decade-long, $1bn-plus “City Campus Master Plan” - a significant enhancement of the university’s physical campus.  This has resulted in a range of new and upgraded buildings and open spaces to support both research and the way the organization approaches learning.  This includes a technology-rich building to house the Faculty of Engineering and IT.  In addition to the innovative collaborative teaching and student spaces, the building itself incorporates a vast array of sensors that are used in UTS research.  It has also included a new building for the Faculty of Science that includes a vast ‘Superlab,’ which can host a range of simultaneous teaching sessions across different subjects.  Determining how to enable this posed a range of technical challenges for the IT team to solve.  Perhaps the best known building to date has been the iconic Dr Chau Chak Wing Building which houses the UTS Business School, designed by Frank Gehry, the architect responsible for the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California.  Like the other buildings this includes an array of innovative learning spaces – such as 360 degree collaborative classrooms.

In 2018, the university launched its new UTS Tech Lab, where engineering and IT researchers from diverse fields work in close partnership with industry and government to develop new innovative technologies.  This facility is the size of several aircraft hangers.  “The University has a really strong background in industry partnering and partnerships,” explains Burns. “The Tech Lab is a really important facility for enabling our academics to come together and innovate with industry, and that’s part of the vision for what will happen in that space.”

UTS’s research footprint has expanded rapidly over the past decade – both in volume and global impact.  That expansion has led to enormous demands on the IT team for software, compute, storage and data management support.  UTS has been leveraging cloud technologies since 2012 to simplify its infrastructure and gain access to capabilities that are increasingly difficult to obtain on-premises. 

The IT team has fostered a number of innovations to support the university’s researchers.  UTS has rolled out a number of ground-breaking initiatives. One of the most recent is “Provisioner”, a framework for research data management and curation of research data. Provisioner provides UTS researchers with storage in an automated and managed way. The initial implementation of Provisioner links into a curation platform for microbial imaging called OMERO that can generate several terabytes of data a day from microscopes.

“One of our key strategies is that we want to do research that is reproducible, so that when research is done, it's not based on somebody's subjective click on a particular button, but we can reproduce the results from the data,” explains Gale. “Or, if new data becomes available, we can provide the exact same computational environment to that data set.  Provisioner facilitates that”

Gale says another reason this capability is important is because it allows UTS researchers to use a variety of technology tools to access the same data. “Our immersive Data Arena, which is a purpose-built physical space allowing the 360-degree visualisation of data, is also used by those same researchers to look at bacteria under a microscope in a highly-visual way,” he explains.

The intention of Provisioner is to be a framework that supports a multitude of different technologies and use cases. “We are actively working with other research disciplines so that they can plug directly into Provisioner.”

Leveraging data as an asset can be instructive in a completely different research discipline, and Gale gives an interesting analogy of iceberg observations made by 19th Century whalers as an example. “In the past, they would just keep logs to show the ship’s journey,” he says. “Now, it is possible to use 19th century whaling ship logs to map the recession of the Ice Shelf in Antarctica over time. So, you get information from one particular discipline, and then later if you maintain it well, you can use it in a completely different discipline to inform research.”

The Date Arena Gale mentions is a completely immersive, three-dimensional visualisation space.  Burns explains that data visualisation enables researchers to ask fundamentally different questions than they would have been able to do it in the past. “So, the technology is really transforming the way that research is done in more ways than just making it easier to store, and perform calculations on it.” 

Some of the technology in the Data Arena is world first, including the ‘Data Arena Virtual Machine’ – a virtual machine on a USB stick that researchers can plug into their laptop, to utilise the entire functionality of a data arena on their laptop. “This basically enables us to replicate the data arena for development as widely as we want,” adds Burns.

UTS values cross-university collaboration, and has teamed up with other institutions to develop a research data catalogue, “Stash”, which is already on its third iteration. “The uptake internally is accelerating and we've now got hundreds of researchers using the Stash platform,” says Gale. “We design and develop in close consultation with the researchers because ultimately it needs to make their job easier. Wherever there are opportunities for automation, for example in the creation of data management plans, we take them. One of our goals is to remove as much administrative overhead as we can from our researchers, it’s an ongoing process”. “This is just one example of our broader evolution from project-thinking to product-thinking” says O’Connor, “In the modern IT world, very little is launched and finished.”

The team has also needed to be flexible and creative in response to learning and teaching needs at the university.  For example, Burns and her team were required to act fast to implement cutting-edge technology to enable the rapid set up of the UTS Animal Logic Academy – a unique collaboration between UTS and digital animation and visual effects production studio Animal Logic.  In a world first, this award winning educational vfx studio launched in 2017 and offers an industry-led and first-of-its-kind Master of Animation and Visualisation as well as PhD research opportunities.

In order to deliver all these changes Burns’ team has been through a process of transformation.  Burns identifies two key factors which have supported development of the agility required to deliver against the fast moving demands of the university.  The first is that the team has invested considerable effort in its IT architecture and the second is that it has worked hard on developing a user centric approach to every aspect of its operations.

One foundation of the team’s IT architecture is the platform strategy developed by O’Connor.  For example, Amazon Redshift was selected as the university’s core data platform.  UTS was one of the first organisations in Australia to use the Amazon Redshift data platform for a range of solutions, including providing lecturers with key information that enables them to better tailor their approach. “It was a bold move at the time, but a good move,” reveals O’Connor. “There were several drivers, one being financial, because to invest in the type of on-premises data infrastructure to do the innovative work we had in mind would have cost a small fortune. We are a publicly-funded institution, we don’t have millions to invest in underlying technology capability that might not produce results for several years, we need to be more nimble and embrace the opportunities of cloud technologies when it makes sense.”

In its quest to develop a UX capability, the team drew on existing expertise within the university’s Faculty of Engineering and IT. “There are some unique and exciting aspects to being an IT team within a university of technology” says O’Connor. “Certainly having so many experts in the room can have its moments” he quips, “however there are some really nice intersections of academic and professional skills and experience that we have been able to harness which would be impossible in any other industry”. One example of this in action is the work that the IT team have done with Dr Tuck Wah Leong, a UTS researcher who specialises in human-centred approaches of inquiry and technology design. “Working with Dr Leong has been absolutely fantastic” says Burns. “We have used his insight to guide many of our projects, every year we put a selection of IT staff through one of his subjects, and we have also leveraged the expertise and drive of his PHD students”. 

Looking forward, the trio are excited about the part that technology has to play in the university’s future. UTS has just released its new long term strategy “UTS 2027”. Staying true to its collegial and collaborative culture, UTS took a unique approach to the development of its new strategy, ensuring that the strategy was informed not by the ideas of a few, but instead by the ideas of its huge community of staff, students, alumni and industry partners. Through workshops, advisory boards and an ideation technology platform (which was a huge success), complex themes and ideas were shaped and moulded into the final strategy.

The IT team has played an important role in the development of the strategy. “We are moving to a world where technology really is at the heart of business strategy,” says Burns. “It’s exciting that the IT team has been able to show some thought leadership in the strategy development process.”

While the UTS IT team is through its first phase of technology transformation, further change is required to support the required digital enablement for the university’s new strategy.  Burns likens the next stage to a ‘Mission to Mars,’ saying they are now looking at where the university needs to head, and which skills and technology are needed for this. Planning for the future is always difficult, says O’Connor, particularly as the pace of business change continues to increase. “We tend to think in terms of underlying capabilities that will be required, rather than ‘business requirements.’ This enables us to make reasonably solid best-bets without having 100% of the information, which is no longer possible.”

O’Connor reveals there's enormous goodwill across the IT team towards the university's mission, and says the team’s culture is supportive of the need for ongoing change. “That has really enabled the journey of developing, learning new skills,” he concludes. “It does a take a constant vigilance, to see the new side and not let the wagon wheels run in the old rut all the time. But I think we're getting there.” 

Burns adds that “what is critical is that every member of the team has a mindset which is about constantly learning, developing, and re-skilling. We’re committed to developing that mindset and our focus is on bringing everyone along. We've invested a lot of effort in cascading down workshops, investing in the team, and getting feedback into what we do. These are big challenges, but we have proven again and again that we have a team that is ready to take the next step.”

Christine Burns