CSIRO's Data61 celebrates first year of operations

A 'transition year' for organisation formed following merger of NICTA and CSIRO's Digital Productivity arm

CSIRO's Data61 – the government’s digital innovation network – has celebrated its first birthday, bringing to a close what its CEO has called a “transition year”.

Formed through a difficult and drawn out merger between National Information Communications Technology Research Centre of Australia (NICTA) and CSIRO’s Digital Productivity division, over the last 12 months the group has consolidated 13 separate work streams, slimmed down internal processes and put in place a new organisational structure.

“But that's been going on while we've been delivering against strategy and delivering against third party obligations,” says Data61 chief Adrian Turner.

Since June last year researchers have also had 350 scientific papers published, 51 patents granted (and 72 applications filed) and delivered on 349 ‘project milestones’.  Around $135 million in new multi-year contracts have been forged with $50 million in contracts now being negotiated.

Meanwhile, the group has become a global leader in regulation-as-a-platform, blockchain and confidential data analytics; a Data61 backed cyber-security hub has opened in Melbourne and four new agreements have been made with universities (bringing total to 27).

And as Turner puts it: “We are just getting started. Next year is shaping up to be an even bigger one.”

Stability for prosperity

When CSIRO finally absorbed NICTA last year, staff at both organisations had suffered months of uncertainty. Funding had been cut again and again, while job losses in the hundreds loomed near.

“More than anything, what I hear from team, is I want stability. And so we've definitely given them that this year,” Turner told Computerworld.

“[What’s been] really important is to have the combined team have a sense of identity and get clear on what we stand for in the market and our values," Turner says. "And more than anything a real emphasis from me on creating a work environment where the best and brightest can do the best work of their careers. But now we're in a place where we've got a strategy defined, we've got an operating budget in place, and we've got team all working as one.”

Work at Data61 has been aligned around three areas “where we think Australia has a competitive advantage”: Safety & Security (incorporating cyber security, bio security and food provenance); Smart Cities (which includes asset management modelling, autonomous systems, and using data for infrastructure investment decisions) and Data Driven Health.

The overarching vision is to see the scaling of existing industries and creation of new industries, with a focus on these fields.

“But what we don't want to do is to stifle creativity from our research community,” Turner notes.

As a result, Data61 continues NICTA’s ‘spin-out’ tradition, where research forms the basis for start-ups which operate independently. On Friday, Audinate which provides audio systems that allow for the transport of high-quality media over standard data networks, listed on the Australian Securities Exchange in what was dubbed “Data61’s biggest pay day”.

Sleeve rolling

Turner was brought in to lead the group in 2015, returning from 18 years in Silicon Valley where he co-founded the Borondi Group and sat on the emerging technology advisory board for Accenture.

Describing himself as “curious by nature”, Turner leads by example, ever-willing to “jump into situations, roll up my sleeves, get on aeroplanes”, he says.

Data61 CEO Adrian Turner
Data61 CEO Adrian Turner

“The highlight of my time is the time that I spend with the team. The other parts of my role I have to do – dealing with you know internal management teams that I report to, dealing with stakeholders – is necessary. The piece that really invigorates me is the time with the team and the passion that they have when they talk about their individual research,” Turner says.

Over the coming year, Data61 be “generous collaborators” in Australia and overseas, operating with a “growth mindset”, and “challenging others in the system to move faster and think bigger while making it easier for others to team with us”, Turner says.

The only thing holding Australia back is its self-belief.

“It’s about scale of ambition and challenging people to think bigger and back ourselves to think bigger and to lead and not be afraid to lead in creating new industry. And the only way we do that is by backing ourselves,” Turner says. “Australia has it all. We've just got to have a little bit more self-belief that that we can do it.”

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