As the office formerly known as Computing & Communications (C&C) evolves into UW Technology, it marks a transition in the way technology services that support the University’s mission are delivered.
C&C was established in the 1980s, as Ron Johnson (vice president of computing & communications), Terry Gray (associate vice president of technology and architecture), Sandy Moy (chief operating officer) and others were brought in by the UW president to bring order out of the chaos that had become the University’s fragmented computing infrastructure.
But now, the primary challenges of providing a coherent underlying computing and communications technology platform have largely been met. “Infrastructure evolution is still important,” Johnson says, “but in general it’s not now an area of great innovation and invention.”
Moreover, C&C, now UW Technology, is no longer the primary repository of campus expertise on the digital infrastructure world, as it was 25 years ago. “We have thousands of individuals across the University who are innovating at the highest level with technology,” Johnson says. “The goal of an information technology department at a university continues to be facilitating the work of its faculty and staff,” but increasingly that means working at a different level and in a different way, helping people acquire technology and enabling it to work with the other technologies at the UW and also off campus.
In order to work in this new way, Johnson and his team have fanned out across campus, talking to researchers and technologists about what they do and how they want to use technology. For the UW Technology staff, these meetings were an essential part of their continuing education about the real “businesses” and opportunities of the University. And it was the first step in renewing and building deeper relationships with faculty, staff and clinicians.
Johnson cited one example. He met with faculty in the new Department of Global Health who are working in rural parts of Africa. They want the ability to gather information at these rural sites and transmit it easily back and forth to colleagues. The job of UW Technology in this case is to help find the right technologies for the rural areas of these developing countries, and marry these with what the UW’s Global Health researchers use.
A whole different group of leading edge technology challenges is faced by Regional Scale Node of the new National Science Foundation-funded Ocean Observatories Initiative, which will be using technology in a real time cabled underwater ocean observatory off the coast of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, deploying instruments across the entire Juan de Fuca tectonic plate. UW Technology staff have been partners with UW ocean scientists, and research engineers in the Applied Physics Laboratory in preparing a successful federal proposal for the initial phase of the hundred million dollar implementation project.
They continue to work in helping craft successful approaches to the technologies that will be deployed in this next generation data- and sensor-driven e-science apparatus. “For many years, our people have been engaged at the national level on emerging technology infrastructure and standards,” Johnson says. “When we engage in a project such as this, we’re building on decades of experience, contacts and relationships.”
Global health and ocean observatories may seem like isolated examples, but Johnson and his colleagues have found that, all over the campuses, people are using forms of technology that were unimaginable a few years ago. They’d often like support in deploying the technology and in ensuring that the evolution of UW infrastructure and services is better aligned to support them.
Some of the expertise and help may come directly from the UW Technology team, but Johnson says that much will come from like-minded faculty and technology colleagues across the university. So, in addition to its own expanded efforts to connect with UW’s researchers and technologists, UW Technology is strongly supporting efforts launched by some computer directors across the Seattle campus to create and sustain a web of local special interest groups, or SIGs. SIGs have long been a mainstay of idea generation and technology evolution by computing and networking experts. Johnson believes that identifying and leveraging the enormous expertise that exists across the UW and stimulating this kind of sharing and shared decision-making is an essential step “in working together to decide what we need to do in the future.”
There are so many emerging technologies and so many unique areas of innovation that no one can be completely knowledgeable, he points out. So finding and convening people who have expertise and common interests is essential for achieving the leverage the UW needs to have and for charting future technology directions for the University.
“One of our challenges has been to come up with the vocabulary to describe what we’re doing in seeking to establish a pervasive culture and practice of shared technology leadership,” Johnson says.
The creation of interest groups actually dovetails nicely with the realities of UW funding: The lion’s share of the money for technology development and deployment has always come from grants or clinical revenues. So finding common ground among researchers and leveraging scarce resources has always been an approach utilized at the UW. What’s happening is not a sea change in technology culture, but a deepening of existing partnerships and an expansion of shared decision-making.
As for the expertise and experience of the “old C&C,” with its commitment to maintaining a reliable core campus IT infrastructure, it isn’t going away. But it is being subsumed into a more expansive, customer-intensive, customer-centric and community-driven mission.