by George Nott

CIO50 2018 #26-50: Robin Phua, State Library of New South Wales

Nov 22, 2018
Technology Industry

Featuring interviews with organisers of ’60s counter-culture arts event the Aquarius Festival; tradesmen memories of building the Sydney Harbour Bridge recorded in the ’80s; and the personal stories behind the Mungo Man historic repatriation process – the New South Wales State Library’s Amplify tool brings forgotten history to life.

The resource – which uses AI-driven voice-to-text and crowd-sourcing technologies to transcribe archived audio – has proven hugely popular, attracting 3,500 users from 50 different countries in its first 12 months after its launch in late 2016.

Its success is in no small part down to the work and leadership of the state library’s CIO and director of digital experience Robin Phua.

Although the library had over the last few years digitised 11,000 hours of historically valuable oral histories from fast disintegrating tape, the digitisation “did not make them easily usable”. Nor was the library equipped to transcribe the collection themselves.

To solve the problem, Phua and his team sought an open source solution.

“Amplify was unique in that we took open-source code from the New York Public Library and lifted that to a wh

ole new product. There is no such other product for oral history transcription in the open-source scene and the code is now available and will benefit other cultural institutions,” Phua says.

Amplify is now available on GitHub, and it is being rolled out to other NSW libraries to support their own oral history collections “and any other Australian institutions with similar needs,” Phua explains, “Watch this space!”

As well as Amplify, Phua also established Australia’s first cultural-heritage innovation lab, DX Lab. After overcoming some internal political challenges, the lab is now bringing together different functions of library staff as well as external contributors and producing some breathtaking results.

“DX Lab’s experimentation of technologies in the GLAM [Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums] sector in just the past two years has been mind boggling,” Phua says.

Results have included a LIDAR scan of the building onto which old photographs can be set, various interactive data visualisations, hardware hacks, in-gallery installations and 3D globes built from 17th and 18th century maps.

Phua took the role of CIO at the State Library of NSW in 2014, and, following a division-wide review, established three objectives: present a clear mission for digital and ICT to support the library’s strategy, establish a “digital transformation imperative”, and unify the division’s four functions (heritage digitization; ICT services; digital library systems and services; and digital strategy, innovation and policy).

“The divisional mission I established is ‘To partner with Library’s business units in achieving digital excellence at the Library through the provision of high-quality ICT and digital products and services’,” Phua says.

“We also changed the division name from Digital Library Services to Digital Experience. This was to communicate that I am not creating a digital branch of the Library, but instead partnering across the business and lifting the organisation’s digital capabilities,” he adds.

Along with the new focus and structure, Phua instilled a growing Agile capability including UX, DevOps and CI/CD. This was mainly done by upskilling staff “in-flight, all with essentially nil training budgets,” Phua says.

Having long relied on off the shelf systems and a “outsourced mindset”, the library now has its own developers and a strong internal capability, making the likes of Amplify and other systems like bulk digitised collection ingestion tool PanDA and machine learning based image labelling tool TIGER possible.

Luck and courage

Phua says throughout his career he has been helped by a little “lucky naivety” and a dose of “dumb courage”.

“Looking back through my digital and ICT leadership journey to become a CIO, there were many decisions where if I had deliberated a moment longer, I would not have seized the opportunity, concluding them as too crazy, too far or too difficult,” he says.

“At each and every of those decisions, if I had put on my rationale brain, it is quite likely that I would have said No and taken a different direction. Perhaps it was lucky naivety followed-by ‘fake it until you make it’, but I would like to think that dumb courage had some role to play,” he says.