Meet the CIO charged with saving Australia’s most endangered species
- 05 July, 2018 11:55
The near-threatened Wyulda. Photo: AWC
One of the more unusual senior technology vacancies in Australia – the inaugural chief information and technology officer of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) – has been filled.
Damien Kerr started in the position, understood to be the first senior technology role in Australia dedicated to conservation, in May.
“They’re doing very important work and for me that’s exciting. What drew me to them was an ability to draw together technology and the sciences to make a difference,” Kerr told Computerworld.
“They have an enormous amount of quality data, probably some of the best in conservation, but there are processes that can be improved and IT can lend a very big hand with that. Analytics, pattern recognition, there’s a whole bunch of interesting areas IT can add,” he added.
Kerr has had a varied career with technical and consultancy roles at Macquarie Group and NSI, and most recently as enterprise architect at waste management firm Toxfree.
He holds post-graduate qualifications in the environment and climate change from Murdoch University and in astronomy and astrophysics from Swinburne. Kerr also holds a commercial pilot license.
His interest in science and love for nature attracted him to the “unique organisation” he said.
“I grew up surrounded by animals. My father was somewhat of a conservationist so I’ve a keen interest in natural ecology, that’s me personally, so being able to marry IT to that was exciting for me. I’m from Wollongong originally, lucky enough to be born and raised on a bit of acreage with loads of birds and animals which were like pets almost,” he said.
The original job posting in February, stated that a key part of the role would be in identifying emerging technologies for use in land management and research efforts.
These would include “harnessing the potential associated with camera trap data collection and analysis, GPS telemetry, drones, remote sensing, artificial intelligence, thermal imagery, facial recognition, bioacoustics and more,” the AWC said in its advert.
“For example – how can drones, AI, thermal imaging etc improve our ability to measure threatened species populations, detect and count feral animals, manage infrastructure and respond to wildfire?” it continued.
Kerr said he was keen to explore the potential of such technologies, but first challenges around data storage, connectivity and communications out on AWC’s 4.6 million hectares of sanctuary space would need to be overcome.
With ecologists out in the field in some of the most remote areas in the country for days and weeks at a time, collection and protection of data locally needs to be made robust, as does the process to synchronise the data when it can be brought back to a base station. The weather poses some problems too.
“Our ecologists are doing work often in the dead of night, in the freezing cold with gloves on, so there are practical challenges there which are really interesting to try and solve. And it’s not often easy to lay a cable between buildings when each wet season it gets washed away,” Kerr said.
“It’ll be a one step at a time process. The foundations have to be right…then we can look at the really interesting stuff,” he added.
AWC’s estate protects a very high proportion of Australia’s biodiversity including some of the largest remaining populations of many endangered species.
The group is “turning back the tide of extinctions” including helping raise the population of termite-eating Numbats – or banded anteater – in Scotia, in the south-western plains of New South Wales, by 350 per cent in the last six years to more than 600; establishing a new population of Bilbies – sometimes known as rabbit-bandicoots – at Mt Gibson in southwestern Australia; and close to doubling the number of Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens in the central Kimberley.
Kerr is managing a team of four which includes a systems administrator, and information management officer.
“For me it’s altruistic and I think that’s the case for many of the staff that work here. People are motivated by a passionate cause, they put in a little bit extra,” he said.