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CIO100 2017 #31-100: Liz Coulter, University of Auckland

  • Name Liz Coulter
  • Title Director IT Services
  • Company University of Auckland
  • Commenced Role August 2011
  • Reporting Line Chief digital officer
  • Technology Function 404 IT staff
  • Related

    The ITS department has had an increased focus on innovation. One of the initial activities which has helped with innovative is the facilitation of the bi-annual Hack Day at the University of Auckland.

    The activity brings together IT staff, customers and external expertise for a 36-hour period to work on ideas and projects they are passionate about which will improve services, environment and/or customer experience, says Liz Coulter, ITS director.

    More than 22 innovative ideas were produced during the 2016 Hack Day, she says.

    Some of these ideas are already in production, with some awaiting resourcing.

    These include:

    • A pop-up map to guide students along the best way to their classroom or lecture theatre.

    • An online tool for monitoring work tasks while in the field.

    • Use of bots to ask questions about courses

    • Guest wireless improvements

    • A paperless field trip freeing up academic and administration staff time.

    Hack Day is just one of the vectors for innovation that the ITS team at the university is involved in.

    The university has also brought in 3D printers that are now essential resources for many departments at the university.

    The School of Architecture and Planning uses 3D printing across a wide range of subjects enabling staff and students to rapidly prototype and test design concepts used for displays and presentations. For example, an impressive display engineered using 3D printed nodes and steel rods to form a contoured mesh. This mesh wrapped around the viewer to create an immersive panorama display of a futuristic cityscape.

    The university also recently acquired Imaging Mass Spectrometry (IMS) equipment. It is used to create two-dimensional images of molecules across biological tissue sections and is currently used for studying brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, developing drug therapies to fight cancer, and unlocking the mechanisms of lens cataract formation.

    IMS generates large data sets (5-500Gb), and analysing these files using the dongle-based licensed software (SCiLS) on a standard desktop workstation is impossible, says Coulter.

    Using USB Anywhere Hubs, the IT department created three virtual machines (VMs) dedicated to the analysis of these large IMS data sets. This has resulted in a large reduction in analysis time, with one user reporting a reduction from three days, to 12 hours using the VM system. In addition, analysis can run in the background on the VM without compromising desktop performance, which increases productivity.

    Innovation ecosystem

    Coulter points out these innovative projects are balanced by a concurrent focus on operational excellence.

    She says the IT infrastructure underpins all critical services of the University such as email, library, student admissions, etc. and provides a stable environment for students, staff and researchers.

    Our operational transformation programme of work has significantly enhanced the stability and efficiency of the IT infrastructure for the University of Auckland, she states.

    The programme objectives included improving processes, addressing environmental sustainability, saving costs, improving the environments stability and service improvements for staff and students.

    Using Evanios and Servicenow, processes were improved to automate the alert and call out escalation for the datacentre. This reduced the need to have a 24-hour staff presence onsite, thereby reducing costs, she says.

    Traditionally the university had Active(Owen Glen)-Passive(Tamaki) datacentre hosting, she explains.

    They shifted this to an Active-Active datacentre whereby the infrastructure can failover from one datacentre to the other without any or minimal disruption to the university. This improved the stability of the network for students, staff and researchers.

    Environmental sustainability is a key performance indicator for the university. The IT department improved efficiency and overall capacity of the datacentre by identifying and removing all legacy, redundant or ‘out of service’ equipment. The culling included over 300 physical devices.

    A custom, cold aisle containment solution was also installed which substantially reduced the required amount of cooling to the datacentre by containing the chilled air to the parts of the data centre that require it. This reduced operational costs by $60,000 to $90,000 per annum.

    As part of the transformation programme, an ‘Infrastructure-as-a-Service’ was set up which ensured seamless and quick service for researchers, faculties and staff to request servers providing minimal disruption to their research. This also provided benefit to our students as end-customers who not only receive faster service but also a service less prone to human error, says Coulter. We are continuing to look at technologies that can support IT in becoming more agile.

    She says the university’s IT services are using Agile methodologies. Supported by leaders and coaches, the department has formed eight cross-functional delivery teams, trained 100 people on Scrum and 10 on product ownership. They completed some very successful pilot projects, including the Student Portal, and phase 1 of the University Web refresh and several subsequent projects.

    “Using Agile has achieved closer engagement with business stakeholders on projects through business-based product owners, co-location of the teams and regular feedback loops,” she explains. “There is a growing awareness that a team working closely together is the best way to achieve successful outcomes when engaging with IT.”

    The department has also rolling out DevOps practices, an approach that emphasises the collaboration and communication of developers, testers, and operational staff while automating the process of software delivery and infrastructure changes.

    “This has improved the maturity of our delivery teams and model, and promoted an alignment in the wider operating model including funding, resourcing, planning, roles, governance and change management”, she adds.

    She says the IT services team works closely with key areas of the university to collaborate with customers and influence decisions. She cites their collaboration with the CDO (Chief Digital Officer) and the IT Strategy, Policy and Planning (ITSPP) team and the University Strategic Project Office to deliver the University’s digital strategy.

    She says the CDO role was created last year to explore emerging digital business models and technologies to enhance the student journey, the use of interactive teaching and improve the use of supercomputers and data analysis, among others.

    “We are seeing a cultural shift across IT which is resulting in innovation, improved effectiveness and, most importantly, a more motivated team.

    We encourage diversity through a range of activities and initiatives we run,” she says.

    Coulter has established a University of Auckland Women in IT Group. Its annual conference attracts over 160 IT women (and men) across the New Zealand universities sector and includes students and Alumni from the University of Auckland.

    After five years in the role, Coulter has announced she is taking on another challenge, but will continue to be active in the ICT and educational sector.

    Divina Paredes

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