Interview with Dr Ian Oppermann, Director CSIRO’s Digital Productivity & Services Flagship

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CSIRO launched the Digital Productivity and Services Flagship in early 2013. The aim: to create A$4 billion per annum in value for the economy by 2025, delivering more efficient and innovative services for Australia. The Flagship’s four research focus areas are Health Services, Government and Commercial Services, Smart Secure Infrastructure and Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation. AARNews interviewed Director Dr Ian Oppermann to find out more:

Why did the CSIRO form the Digital Productivity and Services Flagship?

Flagships are CSIRO’s response to national challenges and the challenge in this case is productivity in the digital economy. The way we went about focusing the effort was to look the sectors that are big enough to make a difference, sectors where productivity has not improved dramatically over the last 10, or even 20 years, sectors where innovation is likely to make a difference, and ultimately, sectors where we likely had, or credibly could, build the capability in this space.

The focus is on government services, health services, commercial services and smart secure infrastructure. To some extent we have a background and track record in each of these areas.  We specifically, for example, did not look at education because that’s not the role of CSIRO but the role of universities and other parts of the education system.

We’ve taken a fundamental approach in that we’re talking about innovation in the digital economy, where you can create, transmit or consume services in a digital format. Given that the whole world is going digital there’s an opportunity for us to innovate in this space and address the challenge of productivity.

Why has productivity declined in Australia and why care?

One of the big issues is it’s the rate of growth which has declined. Productivity in Australia has been improving much like for other western nations but it is the rate of improvement that has been small. In some industry sectors there has been absolute decline but in most it’s the rate of growth that has declined.

The real challenge is when we compare ourselves to the rest of the world. It would be different if Australia operated in isolation but we are part of a networked world with strong international trade relations, strong international engagement and our people are travelling overseas. When we start to fall behind other countries it leads to quite significant dissatisfaction.

Unfortunately, when the report came out from Grattan institute in 2010, Australia was singled out for poor growth in productivity, and listed near the bottom of the OECD world which is a pretty stark position to be in. We’ve seen countries, such as Portugal and Greece, have very significant problems when their rate of productivity growth is poor compared to their neighbours.

Australia now is not in the bottom four but it’s not because we’re doing better.

What is the Flagship’s approach for driving productivity?

In each of the different sectors we’re focusing on it is quite different. In the commercial space it’s new business opportunities or reducing costs of delivering those business opportunities.  In the health space it’s never about saving money it’s about doing different things with the money you’ve got. In the government space typically it’s the same thing – there’s a constant desire for more personalised service delivery and to move to a lower cost service delivery so that more services can be delivered which will make a difference to people’s lives.

We’ve given ourselves a target of a $4 billion economic value add per annum by 2025, but then we measure that quite differently in the different sectors.

So, from a high-level perspective we’ve taken a three lens approach to our work. The near term is about doing more with less, doing more with what you’ve got and delivering value right now. The midterm is about doing old things in new ways, so, the light blue sky research – our tech evolution approach. The really blue sky research is the longer term, and is about doing completely new things in completely news ways, and fundamentally changing the way people engage with technology and the way services are created or consumed – our technology revolution approach.

What are some examples of research initiatives?

Health Care

There are a number of things going on but health is the hottest of hot topics for us.  So, for example, we’ve developed a tool called the Patient Admission Prediction Tool which helps people manage wards better. We’ve built a sophisticated prediction engine coupled with a workflow engine to allow more beds to be freed up to support the competing requirements of ambulance delivery of patients versus elective surgeries.  A bed costs $1million to buy and $.5 million a year to run. Every bed that we open for a day creates $1,300 of value.

We’ve been able to reduce the number of beds that need to be set aside to allow an acceptable level of ambulance bypass and that’s helping people right now deliver value.

We’re looking at hospital management from a critical resource perspective. Recently, for example, because we had all this information about patient arrivals versus predicted levels of patients for all reporting hospitals in Queensland, we were able to predict that there was a flu outbreak, in this case avian flu, and then help hospitals with how to direct resources to manage the outbreak. There’s an opportunity to change the way we go about doing things in a reasonably fundamental way.

The goal is to change the health system, from the management of a sick system to the management of wellness and move people out of the hospital system into a preventative environment. We can only do this by being able to measure, predict and analyse information so that customised care is provided, that enables people to be self-managers of their own wellness with the assistance of an intelligent health care system.

Mobile Telepresence for Museums

Another completely different example is the mobile telepresence for museums project, which is doing an old thing in a new way. This robot technology enables children to experience a tour of the National Museum of Australia virtually in a way that is as close as possible to being there. They walk around with a guide and are instructed and talked to as if they were in same environment. They also have the opportunity to look around and click on objects to get more information, and poke each other – there’s an interface between the real and virtual worlds, giving them a personal museum experience. It’s the ability to interact with each other and the guide virtually in a way that is similar to physical world interactions that makes it different from what has been done with robots in museums before.

If we think of the possibilities and take this technology a couple of steps further, we can be doing completely new things in completely new ways. It’s feasible that eventually we will be accessing the museum after hours and linking in experts from other locations to talk to us about artefacts that we’re interested in, and that we could go anywhere – to multiple museums around the world, browsing between the National Museum, the Louvre and Smithsonian, for example,  at the same time.

The museum sector is very passionate about getting their museums out to the world and this project gives them a glimpse of what’s possible and will provide a roadmap for the future.

Getting telepresence right is going to be a fundamental driver for increasing productivity. This project explores what’s possible for bringing the physical world into the virtual world.

Big Data

Another way of looking at the Flagship is as a Big Data flagship. We’re doing a couple of things around mining social media, developing tools that are being used by a number of government departments and agencies. For example, by harnessing information from many different real-time data sets we’re helping the government target better services in emergencies and develop more personalised human services. We’re helping to close the loop so that the government has a better understanding of the impact of what they’re doing.

How will the flagship be determining which research initiatives to fund?

We’ve developed something called an impacts framework. So in essence, is it big enough to make a difference, is productivity lagging in that sector, and do we have the capability or credibly build it – that’s the big lens we use to identify large areas. Then we look at the near term, medium and long term:  more with less, old things in new ways, new things in new ways.

Ultimately we’re looking to drive an outcome – helping to make Australia healthy, wealthy and wise-so a net benefit Australia objective.

We’re focusing on projects that will deliver value strong enough to get industry and government involved so that we can transition new technologies into the market and have people actually use it.

What will this all mean for Australians?

The mission of the CSIRO can be paraphrased as net benefit Australia.  What we’re looking at is specific contributions in the healthy wealthy and wise areas.

We’re tackling projects that will make systems more efficient and support the wellness approach to health care. We’re looking at wealth creation, working with Australian industry for wealth creation, looking at superannuation to help people make better decisions about where to invest during the accumulation phase. We’re looking at decision tools in general, helping government make data driven decisions and better understand the impact of changes to regulations while at the same time driving down costs of infrastructure services.

We’re also addressing security and privacy issues around authentication and the trustworthiness of the Cloud, a major driver of productivity.

In smart infrastructure we’re looking at showing the way for what’s possible, and the museum robot is a great example of that.

Thank you Ian.

Learn more about CSIRO’s Digital Productivity and Services Flagship


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