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By Alison Donnellan 22 December 2020 12 min read

It's been an undoubtedly challenging year, but we're incredibly proud of the innovation, ingenuity and transformation implemented by CSIRO's Data61 throughout 2020 in response to unprecedented events.

At Data61, we have always strived to work towards solving Australia’s greatest data-driven challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic presented an entirely new challenge, to which we responded by quickly shifting our work (and how we work) to use data to help understand and combat the virus.

As we mark our fifth year, we take a look back at some of this year’s highlights, including our teams’ innovative COVID work, the research we’ve commercialised - such as the NSW Digital Twin and Wildcat robotic mapping technology – our joint report with Austrade on the future of global trade and investment, our numerous award wins and research paper acceptances, and finally, the appointment of Data61’s new Director, Jon Whittle.

We would also like to thank you for your ongoing support, and wish you a safe and merry festive season, and a very Happy New Year! To stay in touch with us over the holiday period, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn, and don't forget to subscribe to Algorithm if you'd like to hear more from us in the New Year.

|Research excellence

While there was plenty of research excellence performed by multiple highly-skilled teams at CSIRO's Data61, COVID-related work was particularly important this year.

How virtual reality and high-performance scientific computing are helping scientists understand how COVID-19 behaves

By using computer modelling, Data61 researchers were able to generate an accurate replica of COVID-19 to identify the regions of its proteins that could be good targets for vaccines and minimising the costly development process.

“The advantage of this is you can optimise the structure in real time to see how it fits, easily stepping back if you’ve made a mistake. This helps us decide what to make in real life to test in the lab, as that is the most expensive and time-consuming part. This greatly speeds up the drug development process," explained Data61 Modelling and Simulations Team leader Dr Michael Kuiper.

“When protein 3D structures are solved with X-ray crystallography or cryoEM, we need to visualise them to understand how they fit together and how they function,” explains Dr Kuiper.

“We go a step further and use these ‘static’ structures to make computer models where we can see how they move in solution. VR provides an intuitive 3D way to visualize the data, making it much easier to interpret than a regular 2D monitor. It can also do so in a collaborative setting, such that people from remote locations can work together.”

Read more here.

AI-powered tool predicts serious disease three months before official announcement

Released in April, this artificial intelligence-powered tool predicted the 2014 Ebola epidemic three months before it was officially declared, with researchers currently applying it to assist in predicting the spread of the coronavirus in Australia.

Developed by CSIRO’s Data61 in collaboration with University of NSW, the tool combines natural language processing, data science and statistical time series modelling to identify specific syndrome keywords and their context mentioned in Twitter posts, facilitating the early detection of outbreaks despite expected daily, weekly and seasonal influences.

In the case of the 2014 Ebola epidemic, the tool gathered all relevant Tweets in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone that mentioned ‘fever’ and ‘rash’ between 2011 and 2014, obtaining an illness alert for December 2013.

The keywords ‘fever’, ‘cough’, ‘headache’, and ‘head cold’ are currently being used to determine the spread of COVID-19 across Australia, with the tool already generating results.

Read more here.

Our data-driven role in tackling COVID-19 in Indonesia

By bringing together a suite of data-driven technologies into a single decision support tool, a partnership between CSIRO’s Data61, The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the UN Pulse Labs, Jakarta and the Indonesian Government is providing Australia’s neighbour with the tools needed to help tackle the pandemic.

Leveraging big data, artificial intelligence, natural language processing and agent based modelling, the system provides a combined alert and intelligence service to help local authorities understand and plan targeted action including directed testing, medical resource distribution and social assistance to where it’s needed most. The system will also allow scenario modelling to evaluate the effectiveness of a range of post lockdown strategies.

The web-based tool will provide crucial insights on the early detection of hotspots, population movement and country’s capacity to adapt to monumental change. The framework of the platform is grounded in two Data61 focus areas, social media analytics and evacuation modelling.

Read more here.

More research excellence:

| Critical reports

Global Trade and Investment Megatrends report

Global Trade and Investment Megatrends: The New Normal report

Global Trade and Investment Megatrends identifies five megatrends that will reshape global trade and investment in the coming months and years in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the report offering nine strategic actions for governments and industry to position Australia for economic success.

Co-authored by CSIRO’s Data61 and Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade), Global Trade and Investment Megatrends uses strategic foresight to provide evidence-based insights.

The report estimates that a decade’s worth of digital transformation occurred within the space of a few months, resulting in the rapid expanse of the international digital technology sector and presenting Australia with the opportunity to drive the nation’s economic recovery through trade and investment with digital and data-driven science.

Read more here.[Link will open in a new window]

Building Blockchain adoption

In the August-released research paper Who is the Blockchain Employee? Exploring Skills in Demand using Observations from the Australian Labour Market and Behavioural Institutional Cryptoeconomics, Data61's Jessica Atherton and Dr Alexandra Bratanova together with co-authors used Australian labour market data to explore what skills and educational qualifications are in demand among the blockchain workforce.

Job data analysed in this study revealed that the Australian blockchain industry is seeking employees who are highly educated, with a strong mix of soft and hard skills, as this will give users both the ability and the willingness to adopt blockchain – two critical needs that will allow the blockchain industry to build the expectations necessary to achieve mass blockchain adoption.

“By having these skills involved in the development of blockchain technologies, we’ll start to see expectations rise in what blockchain is capable of, and more of a willingness to incorporate it into business activities. As per behavioural institutional cryptoeconomics, the more organisations expect others to get involved, the more likely they themselves are to get involved, leading to broad-scale adoption, and eventually economic gains," explained Dr Bratanova.

Read more here.[Link will open in a new window]

Digital Trust: Corporate awareness and attitudes to consumer data

Released in August, this joint report authored by Data61 and Governance Institute of Australia uncovered the key areas of concern and risk for corporate Australia as they navigate an increasingly complex data governance landscape. Risks to brand and reputation from mishandling data, a disconnect between IT leaders and business executives, and difficulty in putting a value on data were identified as key concerns.

While the research was undertaken before the pandemic, the report highlighted that data governance will play an even more crucial role than before due to the significant uptake in digital transformation as a result of COVID-19, questioning whether corporate Australia has changed their data governance of consumer data as a result of the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has forced a more rapid adoption of digital services. Consequently, confidence, trust and privacy are all critical for consumers to have in the businesses that they interact with," said lead author of the report, Data61 Senior Research Consultant Rob Hanson in a Governance Institute article[Link will open in a new window].

Trust enhancing technologies, including cyber security and privacy enhancing services, are a key enabler of good governance and mitigating risks while maintaining a competitive advantage.”

Read the report here.

| Commercialisation

The Early Adopters Program

CSIRO’s Data61’s Early Adopter Program (EAP) makes low risk, affordable and customisable technologies available for Australian companies to trial and build upon, for use in potentially improving production efficiency and building new competitive advantages or markets. Launched in November, the EAP represents a new way of partnering that is low cost and low risk, with an exchange of insightful data analysis from Data61 and EAP partners.

Wildcat is the first technology that has been made available as part of the EAP, and enables a vehicle to map, analyse and navigate its surrounding environment without any human intervention, an action that could save resources, time and money.

Read more here.

Mr Mats Henrikson, Geospatial Web Systems Group Leader at CSIRO's Data61, and Mr Bruce Thompson, Executive Director of NSW Spatial Services

NSW Spatial Digital Twin launches

Launched in February, the NSW Spatial Digital Twin will improve the state’s infrastructure, services, and economy by will enabling planners, policymakers and developers to make more informed decisions and reduce costs by creating new efficiencies. By viewing data collected from multiple projects, cities and industries collectively rather than in isolation, users are empowered to make data-driven decisions to create better, smarter cities, and plan for Australia’s future.

“With this technology, it changes everything,” explained the Minister for Customer Service NSW, Victor Dominello, at the Sydney-held launch event.

“It opens up data to grow the NSW economy. The genius of Digital Twin is that it’s opened and shared, so we can share ideas using this great platform, and when you share ideas, you generate progress, you generate innovation, and you generate the good for the people of our state.”

Read more here.

seL4 launch open source foundation to enable safer, more secure computer systems

As software becomes ever more complex and intertwined, it's crucial to ensure that systems cannot be compromised by even the smallest of defects. Designed by researchers from Data61, the seL4 microkernel can prevent such compromise.

Launched in April, the seL4 Foundation will provide a global, independent and neutral source of funding to support the future of seL4 to provide to a wide range of computer systems the essential protection it enables.The Foundation will also act as a forum for developers and researchers to collaborate on growing and integrating the seL4 ecosystem, helping to maximise seL4’s benefits to critical systems across industry sectors around the world.

The world’s first operating system (OS) kernel that is mathematically proved to be secure, seL4 is freely available and open source, running on a variety of ARM, x86 and RISC-V platforms.

Read more here[Link will open in a new window]

| Awards and events

Australia wins bid to host Privacy Enhancing Technology Symposium (PETS) in 2021

A joint tender between CSIRO’s Data61 and The Optus Macquarie University Cyber Security Hub, both of which will be hosting the event, secured the conference, which comes off the back of Data61 leading another successful bid to host the largest machine learning conference, NeurIPS, also in 2021.

An annual convention, PETS brings together privacy experts from around the world to present and discuss recent advances and new perspectives on research in privacy technologies.

Since its inception in 2000, the summit has catered towards individuals, organisations and government groups concerned about the growing risk of data misuse in a digital-driven landscape and how information can be ethically collected, shared and used to enhance products, services and research.

PETS 2021 will cover a broad of scope of topics, including web privacy, transparency and robustness of techniques of privacy systems, surveillance profiling, data mining risks, information leakage, data correlation, cryptographic tools for privacy, human factors, usability, and more.

Read more here.[Link will open in a new window]

2020 research awards season

Five projects and two applications of Data61-designed tech won awards in October, with the NSW Spatial Digital Twin named Merit recipients in the national Government and Public Sector Solution of the Year category at AIIA's 2020 iAwards. PaintCloud, Graincast and Broadband Demand Forecasting also won state iAwards and were in the running with the Digital Twin.

The team behind big data analysis platform Senaps[Link will open in a new window] took home the Intelligent Data Infrastructure Award by IoT Hub,[Link will open in a new window] while the Bees with Backpacks program at Geelong High School that applied Data61's Cybernetics teams' biosensor technology was an IoT finalist. Ynomia's application of BLEAT (Bluetooth Low Energy Asset Tracking), designed by Data61 researchers in the Distributed Sensing Systems group, was awarded a Victorian Start-Up iAward.

Read more here.

A video demonstrating the colourisation of 3D LiDAR data performed by PaintCloud, which was nominated for an iAward.

Eight papers accepted by NeurIPS, the world's most prestigious machine learning conference

The diverse range of topics covered in the eight Data61 co-authored papers highlights the teams' ability and expertise in fundamental research as well as applied work, addressing theoretical challenges such as understanding regularisation and distributional robustness; algorithmic developments such as better probabilistic inference algorithms and robust approaches to adversarial learning; and high-impact applications in computer vision and sign language translation.

Two of the papers have been selected for a Spotlight Presentations (only 3% of all submission were awarded this opportunity), with authors to present their findings to an international audience of machine learning experts. “As a group, we feel proud and excited about this achievement,” says Dr Edwin Bonilla, Principal Research Scientist and Team Leader at Data61’s Machine Learning Research Group.

The move firmly positions Data61’s Machine Learning Research Group as an international thought leader in the area.

Read more here.

| New Director
Jon Whittle AFR

Professor Jon Whittle was announced as the new Director of CSIRO’s Data61 in May after a competitive international search. Speaking on the year that was, Prof Whittle highlighted the importance of digital innovation and its  exponential growth due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The important work that Data61 does in digital R&D is more critical than ever as we emerge from the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. 2020 has been a testament to the outstanding work of all our research scientists, engineers and support staff who have worked tirelessly in challenging circumstances and have refused to give up on our core purpose of solving the greatest challenges using innovative digital science and technology," he wrote.

"If the results of 2020 are anything to go by, we are in for an exciting year in digital innovation in 2021. I look forward to Data61 being part of that story."

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