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CIO interview: Jason Oliver, ICT director, Science Museum Group

The Science Museum’s outgoing ICT director talks about improving data, dealing with legacy systems and digitising the museum’s collection

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How the Science Museum is moving to the digital age

The Science Museum Group is developing its data analytics strategy to improve visitor experience while progressing with a major collection digitisation project with artificial intelligence (AI) and Digital twin technology at its core.   

This follows the technology transformation work led by the museum group’s ICT director, Jason Oliver, who is stepping down to become IT director at the University of Sussex. 

When he joined the Science Museum in July 2015, Oliver inherited legacy applications and infrastructure that needed modernising to improve business efficiency and usher in technology innovations to support current and future business goals.

“I tried to reposition ICT and try to make it relevant as a business enabler, with customer experience placed at the heart of our design and everything we do,” says Oliver. 

“Data will drive all of our decision-making, so we took a cloud-first policy and decided we would go for cloud services built on a strong foundation. 

“We also said we would have a new approach to how we engage the different areas of the organisation and our audiences, so that work that comes to IT would transition through the department and there would be proper lifecycles associated with things.”

Making data progress

A key example of previous inefficiencies getting in the way of doing more with data was lack of visitor visibility, which, compounded by the fact that entry to the museum is free, made it impossible for the organisation to understand and communicate with its audience properly. 

This issue started to be addressed with the roll-out of a new customer relationship management (CRM) platform provided by Tessitura for the group – which encompasses the Science Museum, the National Railway Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, the National Science and Media Museum, and Locomotion.  

“Visitors would come in and leave, but we wouldn’t know who they were, so there wasn’t any real meaningful relationship with our audience,” says Oliver. “Now we know who nearly everyone who comes into the museum is, we know when they’re coming back and are able to build a relationship. 

“There’s no point doing e-commerce on instinct – you have to really understand what it is your audience wants”

Jason Oliver, Science Museum Group

“Once you’ve got a relationship, you can start to understand what people want and start to provide a better experience for them. And that’s been really crucial for us.”

Going forward, Oliver reckons the museum group is on the right track to take more advantage of the data it is capturing about visitors. There is a project happening now around business intelligence with a focus on audience insight, as well as “several big enterprise projects” coming up around the group’s retail stores and e-commerce, he says. 

“There’s no point doing e-commerce on instinct – you have to really understand what it is your audience wants,” says Oliver, adding that support from suppliers will be key to developing these projects. 

“We have developed excellent relationships with people like Amazon, who are helping to guide us on how projects around our new retail offer and how that’s going to look in the future,” he says. 

Developing the digitisation exercise 

As well as audience-focused data endeavours, the Science Museum has also made progress with a key related initiative – the One Collection project, which aims to digitise the group’s collection of 300,000 objects by 2021. 

About 30,000 objects have been processed so far, with a platform developed in-house that uses automation, microservices, AI and digital twin technology to digitise items, add curation details, catalogue and carry out hazard checking. 

Along with the image capture, curation data and all the process information that go with a completed object ready for public consumption online, the team has ensured that the automation, validation and transformation tasks were all wrapped into a smooth process, says Oliver. 

“Previously, each of the different steps in that process would have been done manually,” he says. “So it really is the automation that differentiates what we are doing here.”

According to Oliver, the process resulting from the digitisation initiative – which is expected to save the equivalent of 91,000 hours of manual work over the next three years – has become a game-changer for other museums and a reference case for other sectors. 

“We have been approached by people from industries such as construction, who are interested in how we create these digital twins,” he says. “I think it’s a method that can be used by people outside of just museums.”

Cutting through the noise 

Separating the wheat from the chaff is a challenge when it comes to developing a data strategy and, according to Oliver, the museum group is becoming more proficient at working round the related complexities.

“Data analytics is a maturing area for us and it’s something we’re getting better at all the time,” says Oliver. “But there is a lot of noise.”

It is hard to get to the data that will bring value and ignore what is “just periphery”, he says. Insights that are interesting to the business include understanding how factors such as the weather, transport issues and other events might affect visitor numbers. 

“It’s all about being able to put different datasets together to understand trends,” says Oliver. “So it’s really a case of, over time, filtering that down to find the right data that is going to allow you to drive performance forward.”

Looking back at the work done so far, Oliver says one thing he would have done differently is to have started the data projects sooner. The Science Museum’s interest in analytics started back when the CRM platform was rolled out just over two years ago, but related projects became “more high-profile” over the last year. 

“Data is something that is going to bring huge value to us organisationally, and there are a lot of stakeholders across the organisation who really get it now,” he says. “But if I could have done anything differently, I probably would have started having those conversations a year or two earlier, so that we could be seeing the tangible results now.”

Creating foundations

When Oliver was hired three years ago, there were myriad other business problems that needed to be tackled before the group got to the point of exploiting analytics. For example, the Science Museum was a multi-site organisation with staff often working remotely, but it was hard for them to do so.

This was addressed by replacing disparate sets of on-premise technology with initiatives such as a group-wide roll-out of Microsoft Office 365 covering 1,900 users. Also on the applications side, changes included a new ticketing system combined with the CRM and also provided by Tessitura, as well as finance and human resources platforms supplied by Technology One and MHR iTrent, respectively. 

Infrastructure-wise, projects delivered during Oliver’s tenure include new high-performance local area Cisco networks delivered by ONI, rolled into each of the five national museums, as well as a new approach to information security.  

“Our new security environment is far more modern and resilient and much more aligned with modern cyber security,” says Oliver. 

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The team has built a private cloud using hyper-converged infrastructure in a high-availability environment, split over two datacentres. Private connections into Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Azure cloud platforms were also introduced. The latter is used for the Microsoft stack, and the former for all the systems related to the museum group’s collections. 

This includes the environment required for the One Collection digitisation exercise, about one million images being ingested in an upcoming photography project, online search using native AWS technology, and an image library. 

The AWS set-up has also enabled collection images to be made available to the public via web and API (application programming interface) gateways via the Collection Online layer, and support of system development and integration. It also accommodates storage gateways as digital storage for the One Collection project and the preservation of a video archive for the National Science and Media Museum within Amazon’s S3 storage. 

Just before Oliver moves on to his new job, he is also trying to get a refresh of the desktop estate under way. Procurement and the roll-out should see nearly 1,300 devices being replaced over a three-year period, with 750 in the first year, he says. 

“We are very likely to adopt a leasing model with wraparound lifecycle services for build, deployment and support,” says Oliver. “With that last project, I can walk away saying we have seriously refreshed and modernised every aspect of the infrastructure.”

Repositioning the department

To deliver the foundation required for the current work, buy-in from senior management was required, along with a recognition that IT was no longer a cost centre for the museum group, but a fundamental element of all business projects going forward, he says. 

“That process requires a new mindset – not from IT, but from the other areas of the organisation,” says Oliver. “I think one of the key things I’ve managed to do well is to move IT to be a trusted partner and an innovator for the whole organisation. 

“When I joined, projects were happening and IT was told after decisions had been made that things needed doing. Now, we are actually implementing on day one what projects are going to happen, how they should be delivered and who we should be engaging with.

“So it’s really a substantial change in the perception of the department. The knock-on effect of that is that now we are able to influence the strategic direction of the organisation.”

The main reason why IT wasn’t delivering what the business needed previously was the lack of appropriate engagement between the function and the other departments, says Oliver – a problem he feels has finally been solved. “There was a lot of work done because IT felt that it needed to be done. Now work happens because it’s meeting the wider business needs.”

“The best and biggest asset that I have is the people in the team”
Jason Oliver, Science Museum Group

While other executives tend to talk about the the difficulties of finding expertise to support the introduction of new technologies such as cloud and analytics, Oliver is keen to emphasise the importance of reskilling the existing workforce. 

“The best and biggest asset that I have is the people in the team,” he says. “They are always wanting to improve – nobody goes to work and wants to just do the same things day in, day out. So if you give people opportunity to develop and try new things, that’s when you’re really going to thrive. 

“One of the men in my team was doing third-level support when I arrived. Within two years, he was being shortlisted for a major award as the best IT manager in the country and is my IT security manager now, in charge of entire strategies around cyber crime and cyber defence. 

“That was through giving him opportunities to develop in different areas, understanding what he was good at and really empowering him to do the best job he can possible do while supporting him through the process.”

With Oliver’s departure, an interim head will be recruited while the group seeks a permanent replacement. The strategy originally written in 2015 has been delivered in its entirety, but if Oliver were to stay for another three years, there would still be a lot of work to do. 

“There are still things that I would have loved to have seen through, although it’s never possible to do everything you want, as technology changes at a faster rate every year,” he says. “As soon as you finish one project, the next one is ready to go. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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