Interviews, IT

Interview with Charles Ewen, Met Office: Illustrating Production Big Data

Charles Ewen
CIO, Met Office

Prior to the Rethink! ITEM Europe 2016 – IT & Digital Enterprise Minds – Driving Digital Business conference, we.CONECT talked with Charles Ewen, CIO at Met Office. Charles is currently the Technology Director and Chief Information Officer at the Met Office, the UK’s National Meteorological Service. In this role, Charles is accountable for all aspects of technology and sits on the Executive Board. Prior to this, Charles held a number of senior roles within the retail and distribution industries involved in technology and digital transformation. Charles started his career as an Engineer in the defence industry and graduated from a military academy.

The subject of your keynote at Rethink! ITEM Europe 2016 is “Production Big Data.” Could you tell me a bit about Big Data and how you work with them?

Charles Ewen: As the world of Big Data and analytics mature, it is important to move beyond broad concepts and begin to define the topic more precisely such that organisations with similar challenges and opportunities can focus on areas of relevance to them. ‘Production Big Data’, talks about performing big data analytics according to a tightly defined schedule.

Whilst I will be talking about how we do that for weather forecasts, there are more and more examples, especially in the area of prediction and simulation, where there is a defined window in which the analysis must take place in order for it to be useful. With a very few exceptions, no one is interested in yesterday’s weather forecast! This mission demands a combination of cutting edge technologies and constant innovation combined with disciplined operations to deliver reliable, robust, resilient and efficient analysis as well as attention to detail in areas like cyber security.

What are some of the main challenges in handling Big Data?

Big Data gets relentlessly bigger! Moore’s law describes the doubling density of logic gates in a defined space every couple of years but also is the driving force behind the ever accelerating volumes of data that are generated. At the Met Office we are currently installing one of the world’s largest supercomputers which will mean that we will certainly be holding true to Moore’s law like increases in data volumes.

Our key challenge is that unlike many, we are well beyond the foothills of Moore’s law and therefore we are doubling what are already very large numbers. As an example, today, the Met Office has an operational storage capacity of some 60 petabytes. By 2019 we expect to be at, or near, 1 exabyte. These kinds of increases demand constant re-appraisal of fundamental ways of working and perpetual innovation to ensure that we can extract the maximum possible benefits in terms of more accurate forecasts and simulations as well as realizing ongoing efficiencies.

Along with digitalisation and digital transformation, how has the role of the CIO in the firm changed in the past years?

In the world of Big Data, IoT and so on, it has become much more important to be able to think in terms of ‘information’, as well as data and technology. Without clear thinking and identification of what business problems we are trying to solve or opportunities to be realized, it is all too easy to get caught up in the hype cycle. On the whole, it is a very good thing that typically more people at C level are at least technology aware and I certainly know many senior company executives in COO, CFO and CEO and other business leadership that are real technologists.

The down side to this general awareness of technology is the temptation to act on the notion of being ‘left behind’, somehow and I see a lot of businesses that adopt large programs of change to ‘adopt cloud’, or ‘build an app’, or ‘go big data’ etc., without a really clear vision of what problem they are solving. The CIO has to be able to harness this enthusiasm and ensure that it is directed to define and lead technology programs that will be recognized as delivering true business benefit as recognized by the wider organisation. Whilst it has been long said that the CIO needs to be able to speak ‘business’, it is now equally important that they can translate ‘technology’ in terms of business advantage.

What do you think the future holds for the IT industry and how well is your company prepared for those changes?

Met Office Technology has a current strategy entitled ‘from enabler to leader’, and what this talks about is the importance of shifting the role of IT from a cost to be ‘managed down’ in finance terms, to a capability to disrupt and innovate to deliver business advantage. I have no Machiavellian aspirations for technology but do believe that increasingly in successful organisations of all shapes and sizes; technology adopts an appropriate position of shared leadership.

Clearly this is already the case in organisations in the tech business however IT will become much more relevant and embedded in many more classes of organisation. For the Met Office, a more analytical world means more expert systems and organisations who need to better understand the future environment and so we are working with a much wider spectrum of companies than before so a lot of work is going into ensuring that the information we provide is relevant, useful, discoverable and accessible to them.

Thank you for your time to participate in the interview!

Interview partners: Nikolaos Kapetanis and Charles Ewen

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