IT's All Happening at the Zoo

IT's All Happening at the Zoo

The scenario is not pleasant. Sydney's power is off on 1 January as electricity authorities (and everyone else) battles the impact of the millennium bug. A drunken reveller slips into the zoo, and with the electrified wires separating the public from the animals switched off, decides to climb into the Sumatran tiger's enclosure to test his speed and reflexes against those of the animal.

The animal wins -- easily.

Such a scenario is one of several headaches confronting Taronga Zoo and Western Plains Zoo chief information officer Jenny Vassilou, who wryly notes the "hot wires" are as much there to keep members of the public outside the animal enclosures as to keep the animals in. The Y2K project area "is huge for us", Vassilou claims. Areas potentially affected by the ubiquitous bug include timing devices on exhibits, the hot wires, refrigeration units, sprinkler systems and water recycling equipment. "We are testing different scenarios [at the moment]," Vassilou says, "including the-no power [throughout Sydney] scenario". In this case, she says, the generators available to the zoo are to be deployed "where they're most needed", ensuring essential functions remain intact. "If Sydney's power goes out, it's very likely the zoo will be closed to ensure the safety of the collection." According to Vassilou, the testing program has revealed little untoward or unexpected, with the zoo's systems delivering the basic requirement -- the animals remain where they're supposed to. "[We've] just about finished testing in the different exhibits we've earmarked. The results are pretty much as we expected," she says. "A couple of issues here and there required maintenance. The main [issue] was that the doors remained closed and the animals were contained, and that happened".

Despite these initial successes, however, Vassilou remains wary, and disaster recovery is very much front-of-mind for the person upon whom the zoo is dependent come 1 January 2000. "Security will be on full alert for alarm systems," she claims, and "our food preparation area will ensure that standing orders for food supplies are received. Key staff will be given a checklist to ensure that everything that should be received, is received and normal daily operations will occur. However, if the network supporting the ticketing and admissions systems goes down, she says, the zoo "won't shut the gates" -- staff will revert to the old cash registers to ensure the public can still gain entry to the zoo. "A few systems still need to be upgraded -- we're pretty confident that everything will function," she says. Vassilou says the zoo will have access to off-site computers, including an AS/400 operating a financials system, in the event of systems failure.

Zooing More with Less

Vassilou, who was appointed manager of information technology for both zoos on 1 July 1995, is a veteran of getting by on the smell of an oily rag. In 1995/96, she was allocated a budget of $20,000 to deal with the hardware requirements of a dispersed enterprise -- an amount that has risen to only $70,000 to $75,000 for the current financial year. "[The budget] was non-existent to start with and remains negligible in the scheme of things," Vassilou says. Nonetheless, she has to manage the information systems infrastructure for an enterprise which handles more than 1.635 million visits to both zoos, supports around 330 staff (equivalent full-time positions) and manages assets worth more than $73.55 million. The management of the zoos reports directly to the Minister for the Environment via the Zoological Parks Board of NSW. The zoo structure is broken into separate management divisions handling life sciences, conservation and research, marketing, Western Plains Zoo, corporate services, finance and development, and environmental management and education programs. Western Plains Zoo, based at Dubbo, covers 788 hectares and contains around 770 animals from 90 species and sub-species. Taronga -- which grew from the old Moore Park Zoo, founded by the Royal Zoological Society of NSW in 1881 -- covers 27 hectares, with almost 1900 animals from 394 species and sub-species.

Vassilou, faced with no real choice in her first year, decided to commit the entire budget to leasing -- an approach she has sustained over the past few years -- and set about leveraging the prestige of the zoo site to attract vendor freebies. This task was, she concedes, not that difficult -- representatives from key vendors were falling over themselves to provide, generally gratis, the information systems infrastructure needed to support the zoo environment. The infrastructure across both zoos now comprises a Unisys server hosting an NT operating system and an AS/400 running a series of SAP R/3 modules, including financials, materials management, asset management and human resources. Other modules the zoo is currently adding include workflow, plant maintenance and payroll. The zoo is presently using a Windows 95 desktop operating system incorporating Office and is planning to upgrade to Windows NT 4.0, as well as the next version of Office, this year. The 27-hectare Taronga Zoo site -- situated in prime real estate on Sydney's lower north shore -- is serviced by a TCP/IP local area network incorporating just over two kilometres of fibre-optic cable. The LAN services dispersed offices in the zoo's gorilla, bird-house, orang-utan and conservation resource areas. "Since 1995, we've managed to connect 80 computers here and another 15 to 20 out at Western Plains, which is connected [to the network] via a direct ISDN link," Vassilou says.

She is not shy about promoting the zoo's achievements in IS. "We were the first organisation in the world to run R/3 on an AS/400 when we went live on 1 March 1996," Vassilou says. "We were also the first state government Web site to offer e-commerce, offering sponsorship and giftware." The site was launched on 1 June 1998. The zoo is also trialling a Notes-based environmental management system which will allow the zoo to manage waste and recycling more efficiently.

This was expected to be rolled early this year. Vassilou says she has built an information systems infrastructure worth $3 million on a budget of around $70,000. The zoo is currently moving to leverage the revamped information systems infrastructure to deliver a range of interactive and Web-based services to enhance service delivery and improve internal working. "For the Internet site, we're encouraging staff to submit material for it and we're in the process of developing an intranet [based on Microsoft FrontPage] to pass research and reports around," Vassilou says. At the time of writing, the zoo had plans to kick off a Web-based virtual classroom -- which would allow students to chat with education staff in real-time sessions -- early this year.

"We're also looking to complete an upgrade of our retail and point of sale system. We're basically changing the platform from which the touchscreen Centaman point of sale system operates from a LANtastic environment to a Windows 95 and NT environment," she says. Another project on the drawing board is the installation of at least a dozen kiosks zoo visitors can access information about the animals, and their natural habitat. The automation of some zoo functions -- encompassing areas such as night zoo lighting and water reuse -- is already complete. Processes still to be automated, according to Vassilou, include online updating of animal management species plans, pathology registers and environmental management.

Talk to the Animals

Vassilou's IS challenges started when she managed the operation under her old title of manager -- corporate services. "Just before I was appointed to the IT area, I was given responsibility for calling for tenders for a computerised admissions ticketing system," she says. "Four points of entry had to be networked at Taronga and another one at Western Plains Zoo and the infrastructure extended throughout both zoos." The zoo's current IS environment is a far cry from the archaic mess that was in place in 1995 -- something the manager remembers none-too-fondly. When Vassilou started, the information systems environment was a hotchpotch of different platforms and hardware -- "the only area in which there was some semblance of professionalism was in the graphics area, and they were using beat-up old Macs", she says. The Webster financial system was "down more often than it was up. "The whole process of getting to where we are, to look at what we've done over the past few years, has been so much fun, a huge learning curve," Vassilou says. "It's great to be able to put something in and have it used and working straightaway."But there's another reason Vassilou like her job: "Where else in Sydney can you work and be able to go out of the office and have a close encounter with the animals?" she says.

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