Data61 confronts next big challenge

James Riley
Editorial Director

There is a lot to like about Data61 and the unmatched ambition of its strategic plan, announced to the media a week ago. And there is a lot to be confused about too.

This is a large and complex organisation that is doing big, complicated things. The confusion comes with Data61’s central focus on ‘data science’, a term that did not get much use in Australia until about three months ago.

Data? Science? What? This is a head-scratcher not only for the average Aussie. It is unfamiliar territory for smart, connected Australian business folk as well.

And that’s a very real issue for Data61. It the Everest-sized communications challenge in front of it.

Here’s the thing: People don’t know what Data61 is, they don’t know what it does, and they don’t know why the things it does are important.

They certainly don’t know how to engage with Data61, or even how they would benefit from such an engagement.

Our contemporaries in other developed economies might have been building one billion-dollar empire after another on the back of applied data science, but this is not the conversation we’ve had in Australia.

In fact, until a week ago we had a chief scientist who didn’t regard data science as ‘science’.

Data61 chief executive officer Adrian Turner outlined a smart and ambitious plan for the organisation at a media event in Sydney recently. All the moving parts makes your head spin.

Successfully executing that plan is a massive, massive challenge. Because he will continually be pulled back to explaining the basics: ‘This is who we are, this is what we do, this is why what we do is important.’

The reality is that most people reading this article do not know the answers to those questions. This is a not a criticism of Adrian Turner. If anyone’s asking me (and they’re not), I’d say the team that recruited Mr Turner – that would include CSIRO chairman David Thodey and CEO Larry Marshall – absolutely got the right man.

He brings with him the right level of excitement about research (a high level) and the right level of excitement about commercial outcomes (an equally high level.) He also understands the value and satisfaction of (and is equally excited by) building powerful infrastructure and tools to achieve social good outcomes.

So there you go. Regardless of the challenges of the actual science, or the challenges of managing such an odd institution (did I mention there are a lot of moving parts), there is the nation-wide, literacy-level communications challenge to deal with.

Here are some things we learned from Adrian Turner at the Data61 media launch this month. Firstly, Australians are good at the science. We have got some game, he says: “The technical capability [inside Data61] is comparable to any organisation, anywhere in the world.”

While the application of data science lags across the broad spectrum of the economy, Australia has ended up with an institution of scale: Data61, through the merge of NICTA and the CSIRO Digital Productivity Flagship, is large by global standards. It has one of the largest concentrations of data scientists of any institution in the world (certainly this part of the world.) Data61 has 1100 staff, including more than 430 PhD students from 29 university partners (there’s those moving parts again).

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that for all the technical and research nous, there are problematic skills gaps. Chief among these are product management skills. Mr Turner is currently seeking a Product Management Lead, who will drive a product management training capability inside the organisation.

It is not an easy role to fill. Forty-four initial applicants for the job produced two interviews (and no candidate to fill the role). Mr Turner has engaged US-based Pragmatic Marketing to run an internal short-course to get the ball rolling.

Mr Turner spent a lot of time talking about corporate goals, and mapping the research and business challenges Australia faces (and by extension the challenges faced by Data61.)

At the centre of it all is a desire to engage more. To that end, its big announcement was the creation of a partner program – D61+ – to build better research relationships with the outside world. That is, D61+ is focused on building the eco-system that leverages the Data61 capability – with corporates, with startups, with academia and with government.

Data61 sits in the middle, and as it builds out its product management and commercial expertise, should create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

To that end, Mr Turner has signed MoU’s with 12 Australian incubators/accelerators as it tries to build out its institutional relationships into the startup sector. No details of what is in that MoU, nor any real understanding of how Data61 assesses the quality of one incubator against another – but as a statement of intent, it is a marker to follow.

We know that Data61 wants to partner with multinational corporates. It will go out into to world to promote Data61 capability, and help the local sales and marketing outpost in Australia to convince corporate to send R&D dollars here.

Mr Turner has re-branded the former NICTA’s annual TechFest event, calling it D61+ LIVE. The event will be more than a showcase of capability, but a sit-down-and-talk–to-us-about-your-challenges. Literally Data61 wants a kind of speed-dating event for any business or government executive who thinks they can be doing more with their data. It’s on March 30.

How these relationships will work – whether with a startup or corporate – is not set in stone (and frankly, is not clear.) Mr Turner is a lot clearer about what Data61 is not. It works at the high-end of data complexity only. It does not seek to be a body shop, or a competitor Accenture or the like.

The focus seems unlikely to be on spinning out startup companies from Data61 – although it is quite likely that Data61 will have equity in startup companies that come to it as partners. Mr Turner says he is trying to build a much better alumni infrastructure – because he insists that it will be meaningful for the rest of your career to have worked at Data61.

He wants the organisation to become more ‘porous’ – so that Data61 people are more likely to return, having spent time in a startup, or a consulting house, or a bank or a government department.

The creation of Data61 is an exciting for Australian tech. But so was NICTA. It is my view that NICTA should have been kept out of the CSIRO. Creating scale by merging NICTA with the Digital Productivity Flagship is a good idea, but putting the merged entity inside CSIRO is iffy.

The risk, as ever, is that whatever culture NICTA and Mr Turner have brought to Data61 gets extinguished by CSIRO inertia.

This is not something Mr Turner is worried about. He says he is “completely comfortable” about the CSIRO and its “huge push” into entrepreneurialism and commercialisation.

With great respect, that is something that remains to be seen. What we do know for sure is that there is a lot going on at Data61 and that it is important.

But right now it is confusing.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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