It’s mid-February and a rare sunny day bathes Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens in idyllic light, bouncing off points of colour where bunches of snowdrops are popping up their heads. I’m here to meet the 250-year gardens’ first ever CIO, David Ivell, appointed just three months previously.
“A friend saw the job advertised and said, ‘It looks like your ideal job has been posted’,” he says from his office that commands a handsome view of the grounds. “I’d made a decision that I didn’t want to do another commercial role – you get to the stage in life when you don’t want to do banking – and I’m a bit of a tree hugger in my spare time. The environment is very important to me and I like to think I’ve got a social responsibility. I’m a member of Friends of the Earth and I’m interested in sustainability of the planet and how you can make a difference.”
Set on the edge of the River Thames in already leafy southwest London, Kew is many people’s idea of a wonderful place to work but Ivell says he also recognised an interesting IT challenge.
“Apart from it being a beautiful place to work, Kew is very much an information place. You collect information about seeds, flowers, where things are growing and everything to do with things that are living, and you have so much information going back to David Livingstone [and beyond]. The Bounty [of Mutiny on the Bounty fame and originally sent out to collect breadfruit cuttings] was [in part] a Kew ship.”
Even starting today, assembling that amount of data into usable formats together with cross-pollinated workflow would be no mean feat but, having celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2009, Kew is also no simple, green-field site.
“We have 40 or 50 databases that are valuable on their own and wouldn’t it be great to express that so that a seed bank could branch out to other information such as that genus of plants? There is added value in putting that all together. The information strategy is to pull together these various databases, some of which may be on card indexes or on a researcher’s PC.”
The challenge is part of a 10-year project begun last year and dubbed the Breathing Planet Programme. The programme is intended as Kew’s contribution to understanding and confronting climate change and – together with other items such as identifying threatened species and helping in global conservation – it mandates greater discoverability and global access to essential information.
“We’re starting to get the building blocks in place,” Ivell says. “We’ve got the world’s greatest collection of plants and we need to make it smarter. We want to be much more externally-focused: we’re doing an amazing job in managing Kew and need to do a better job in getting that information to the outside world. We have to be better at explaining how technology can push the value of Kew and stimulate scientific research.”
Kew has teamed up with Oracle, among others, to accomplish this. The software giant helped in the relaunch of Kew’s website and will help standardise back-office tasks through the E-Business Suite as well as helping to meet the challenges of digital asset management and records management. Ivell believes that establishing strategic vendor relationships is critical to raising awareness because firms like Oracle bring powerful brands of their own.
“We don’t always see the value of what we have, or we see it in a fairly ‘boxed’ way. We have a lot of information about seeds but not what that relates to, for example. We’ve started to build good relationships and the value is more than just financial.”
Further out, Ivell envisages new ways to share information such as putting smart barcodes on plants to let visitors find out more about them on their mobile phones.
The potential, he believes, is huge, allowing Kew to work with other botanical gardens, academic and research institutes, commercial groups and others. But hurdles include even what might appear relatively simple challenges such as naming conventions as Latin names compete with vulgar versions and local variants. It’s complicated stuff and, after such a short time in the job, Ivell is only just finding out how complicated. Recent learning has included discovering from Kew research facility Jodrell Laboratory how a particular plant was showing a large HIV profile; the ways plants can be used in medicine to treat malaria and cancer; and an investigation into a DIY company using a rare species of tree in wooden products.
But the challenges at Kew are to some extent familiar. Ivell, for example, once consulted with the Vatican in a project that involved digitising data for South American scholars.
“It’s the same here,” he says. “If we can digitise a lot of the samples, we can put that out to the planet and create more information exchange.”
Sowing the seeds
Experience in his previous role as CTO of the British Film Institute also acts as a ‘first take’ for the latest job. “I loved it at the BFI because you work with people who are really passionate about what they do. And they’re not just saying it: they live and breathe it,” he says.
At the BFI, Ivell worked on ‘mediascapes’, attempting to answer the question of ‘How do you expand beyond the physical structure of the building?’. At Kew, the equivalent could be providing information so people walking about within the gardens or anywhere else in the world could find out about plants.
At the BFI he worked with Apple to put the Institute’s archive on iTunes and established a commercial relationship with a media management company called Gracenote centred on identifying video through metadata. Kew could build similar relationships with research organisations and commercial interests such as pharmaceutical firms, Ivell reckons.
“At the BFI we had 26 acres of cans of film and here we have 26 acres of boxes of plants. We both have restaurants and bars, scientists, restoration challenges... even a problem with mould!”
Ivell, who reports into Kew corporate operations and finance director Andy Burchell, also says he has good backing from senior management.
“We have our biggest investment ever and we’re in unique position in that we’re well funded. [Director] Stephen Hopper understands we’d be poorer without IT.”
Making Ivell Kew’s first CIO is an indicator of that and Ivell says that his ambition is to strengthen IT management and become a valued service provider.
“I want to be seen as less of a cost centre building products but instead as a part of Kew that is equally creative. We’re building a core competency within Kew so we can offer services outside of Kew. We’ve got a really good reputation and we can work with some of the leading organisations on the planet. The opportunity is to not to maximise the IT systems performance but to add value for the good of the plants and the good of Kew’s resources.”