Two years ago, Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Resources chief information officer Rowan Dollar was at a new technology field day on a cattle station on the outskirts of Alice Springs.
“At the end of the day, as is the hospitality of country people, a BBQ was put on and about 50 of us sat down to a wonderful dinner. The usual outback ideal – outside, laughter, a fire and some friends,” Dollar says.
The conversation soon turned to remote connectivity, or the lack of it. So Dollar and his team decided to do something about it.
The results have brought people to tears of joy.
Working with a small start-up from NSW, the team has now solved the problem – patent application pending – of ‘last mile’ connectivity for remote residents in northern Australia.
“Utilising satellite or 3G or fibre connectivity, we are able to now give remote residents long range Wi-Fi connectivity – hence access to voice and data – from base to mobile extending over hundreds and thousands of hectares on a ‘sleepy’, wake on demand solar powered network,” Dollar says.
Providing 3G-like connectivity to “the other four per cent” of Australians, currently without it, “simply changes how people work and communicate in the bush” and “fundamentally changes the daily lives of farmers across remote Australia,” Dollar explains.
“It allows a farmer to communicate with the homestead or his accountant, for example, from his tractor or whilst he is fencing or mustering. It enables his or her access to Facebook or Google to stay in touch or to reach for help. It gives them voice services when previously there were none. I had a cattle farmer in tears on the phone when I described to her what we have done – it is that important,” the CIO says.
“To say this will change lives across remote Australia, and anywhere globally, is an understatement of massive proportions,” Dollar adds.
Dollar’s division is also working with an IoT provider and Charles Darwin University to provide a LoRaWAN network capability in remote areas. This will allow sensor capability on remote stations but will also fundamentally change how cattle stations are managed across Northern Australia, he says.
“It will bring substantial efficiency improvements to individual farmers, the industry as a whole and researchers. It will allow farmers to heat map their herd movements down to an individual animal through GPS located ear tags, manage their infrastructure and by combining with AI using predictive analysis ensure that repairs are carried out prior to failure and that the right animal management decisions can be made,” Dollar, who comes from a long line of sheep and cattle producers,explains.
“The collection of this large scale data will also enable substantial research into cattle management across the Top End over time. This simply is not possible now,” he adds.
Get out and listen
The innovations have come about due to Dollar’s keenness to get out of his office to meet stakeholders to “listen and learn”.
He travels extensively throughout the Top End meeting farmers and industry stakeholders including the NT Cattlemen’s Association, NT Farmers and individual cattle station owners.
“We’ve worked to identify long standing issues (everyone knows the NBN headlines) and then solve them using the latest technologies and methods. Few of my counterparts across government do anything even like it,” he says.
He also makes himself approachable within the department. He sits with staff and has an ‘open door policy’ (although he had his own office removed in a redesign of his floor) that allows staff members to approach him about anything at any time. The last Friday of each month is kept clear for department staff to come and chat about “stuff, tech or otherwise”.
“I also just wander past and have a chat with staff – this is rare in the public service where most executives sit in their offices,” he says. “I travel and meet with staff and other unit heads across the NT simply to enable those ‘fireside’ chats that cover many areas and issues that a formal meeting just simply doesn’t.”
His team are also encouraged to communicate and collaborate, and are trained in leadership and other skills, which Dollar says “works a treat”.
As a result, the profile and status of technology within government has been raised. Technology innovation is one of five areas of focus in the department’s Strategic Plan for 2018-2022, up from ‘no mention’ in the last plan.
“Get out of your office and find new stakeholders,” Dollar says. “It’s all about people.”
His team’s efforts will truly make a difference to those living in the Northern Territory.
“My achievements will help societal changes in remote Australia to be far greater than some business strategy or new working model,” he says.