CIO50 2018 #26-50: David Wong, National Library of Australia
Shortly after being promoted to CIO at The National Library of Australia, David Wong was overseeing the delivery of an update to a key piece of technology infrastructure. Production loads were crashing the system and due to its complexity, it could not be rolled back.
“The applications team felt it was a hardware issue, the infrastructure team felt it was an application issue. I did not receive support from the project team that delivered the update,” he recalls.
So Wong assembled his own team.
“These staff members had several attributes – they were technically sound, they were problem solvers, they were committed to delivering outcomes, committed to the library and its mission. My takeaway here is that technology is still a people game and you’re only as good as the team and support that you have no matter what role you are in,” Wong says.
More recently, Wong and his team have delivered numerous innovations as part of a transformation program that was completed in June 2017. The library’s digital services are used by up to 70 thousand users per day, more than 20 million yearly. It has been up to the fourth most used government service which Wong says is an achievement for a relatively small organisation with appropriations of $70 million annually.
Under the library’s digital library infrastructure replaced program, the amount of digital content available to the public has tripled. Content is fully searchable, oral history interviews and recordings are delivered alongside transcriptions, and high resolution, ‘zoomable’ images.
The operational efficiency of collection and digitising workflows has increased from five to 100 times. The time from content deposit to online delivery has been reduced from weeks to minutes – achieved through the elimination of manual workflows and automation.
In the last 12 months, one million newspaper pages were digitised and the library now provides free online access to more than two-thirds of all out-of-copyright pre-1955 Australian newspapers.
“The library is an exemplar for government innovation and a technological success story having delivered a net present value of $105 million from a modest $15 million investment,” says Wong.
Digital systems reached end-of-life
Innovation at the 400 –person organisation was driven by business need – digital library systems that were pioneering the world since the mid-1990s had reached end-of-life and their limitations and constraints were becoming more apparent. Infrastructure was difficult to maintain, new digital content could not be collected, and systems could not be scaled which meant the library would be unable to fulfill its collecting obligations.
The library, like the broader Australian public service, is under funding pressure with reduced staffing levels, says Wong. Coupled with rising user expectations, increased competition for online attention from alternative information sources and social media, the library relies on digital service deliver to achieve reach and impact.
“We partnered with other agencies to seek funding from the government to build new digital infrastructure. While the business case was applauded, no funding was provided. As the infrastructure was critical, the library used its own appropriations and funded a program scoped to meet minimum requirements,” he says.
“As there was no suitable market solution, we initiated a five-year program to implement the infrastructure, relying on a history of innovation, leveraging our internal development capabilities and using commercial and open source technology when available.”
Wong says the best part of the company’s budget sustains the library’s physical operations. To achieve its goal of “being the nation’s memory in the digital age, it has to be a collective effort amongst the library, its users and partners that is enabled by technology, including artificial intelligence.
“Our aim is to democratise knowledge and make information available rather than restrict or control access to it,” Wong says.
“Provenance, authenticity and being a trusted source is up there with cybersecurity so we want to get the investment mix right. We don’t have lots to spend.”