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Charles Ewen, CIO of Met Office, explains the areas of IT that UK's weather service is leading the way in, and the areas where there is room for improvement.

Charles Ewen, CIO at the Met Office, started his career as an engineer in the defense industry, eventually moving into e-commerce development and strategy. “I was never far away from IT,” he says, looking back on his gradual move into technology. “With the birth of the internet, it became clear that organizations wanted to automate the procurement process.”

Ewen used his knowledge of business change to create a broad portfolio career. As well as holding several consulting appointments, he worked for technology specialist Premier Farnell for more than 10 years. “That mix gave me broad experience and over time I became an expert in digital transformation,” says Ewen.

He drew on this broad skills base when he joined the Met Office as head of digital technology in 2008, where he honed the organization’s web approach. He subsequently spent a year as executive head of technology in 2012, helping to create a strategic view on the role of IT in the business. He successfully applied for the vacant CIO role at the Met Office in January 2013.

Ewen looks back proudly on some of the tactics he introduced to help manage traffic on the largest web site in UK government. “We had to learn how to become scalable very quickly,” he says. “One of the first things I did was to limit the internal IT infrastructure so that we could keep costs and demands under control. To my knowledge, we were the first government body to make use of cloud-based caching.”

It was, suggests Ewen, a considerable challenge to convince senior stakeholders that a move on-demand was a risk worth taking. However, ten years on, his pioneering decision looks prophetic. Ewen remains a strong believer in the power of on-demand IT but he allies this support for a cloud-first approach to a strong business rationale.

“I appreciate the cost of running an internal data center can be significant, especially when the cloud offers such strong returns in terms of cost and scalability,” he says, suggesting technology teams need to create a suitable balance. “Our cloud-first strategy means on-demand IT must offer something above and beyond running technology internally,”

Technology, in whatever form, is crucial to the work of the Met Office. The organization aims to undertake science that helps humans develop a better understanding of environmental evolution, both in terms of short-term weather trends and long-term climate change. Much of that work predictive work relies on models, computers, and analytics.

Ewen is responsible for both the organization’s IT strategy and its technical teams. He says internal technology management focuses on three core areas. First, large-scale enterprise IT, the strategy of which will be familiar to most CIOs and which includes a concentration on a progressive move to the public cloud.

Second, digital technology, including web sites, apps and application programming interfaces. As with enterprise IT, Ewen says the long-term aim is to move on-premise systems to the cloud. “I simply cannot begin to compete with the innovation and scalability that’s taking place on-demand – and neither should I try, as it is not my core business concern,” he says.

Ewen’s final area of IT management covers supercomputing, which includes research capability, mass storage, and experimentation. He works closely with the Met Office’s science teams that rely on high-performance computing. The organization, says Ewen, has three of the world’s 50 largest super computers, for which the Met Office made a business case to the UK government in 2011.

The case demonstrated the potential social and economic value of introducing more computational power within enterprise IT. “Our success was a blessing and a curse for me – installing three of the largest computers in the world on time and on budget was a considerable challenge,” he says.

The good news is that the implementation was completed three months early and on budget. “Our scientists are undertaking work to exploit the power of these machines,” he says. “As an IT team, we run those systems effectively and efficiently.”

Ewen says the ability to use high-powered computers to simulate the future from known principles remains crucial. Connected technology could also play a part in the organization’s crystal ball gazing. As well as the continued importance of the cloud, Ewen says the Internet of Things could provide new data and new opportunities in terms of predictive modeling.

The Met Office uses its cutting-edge IT to improve the quality of forecast services. Those services must be accessible and effective to both the public and the organization’s commercial customers. Ewen says the quality of the Met Office’s atmospheric predictions, for example, means it can help an airport, such as Heathrow, to make crucial business decisions about flight cancellations and customer footfall.

“Our work goes far beyond the weather and now helps external organizations to consider how environmental conditions can impact business operations,” he says. “That is the direction of travel for our work – and that has huge implications for the technology team because our systems help our scientists to make accurate predictions.”

As he looks forward to future challenges, Ewen says the organization already benefits from world-class supercomputers and strong enterprise IT capability. He believes the largest test for the IT team centers on the Met Office’s digital technology, such as its applications base. Ewen believes his IT team can undertake key work to help commercial firms make the most of the information that his organization creates.

“We’re evolving from an organization that broadcasts forecasts to one that is becoming an interoperable part of the information economy,” he says. “We’ve got to do that because of the level of complexity and the velocity of the data we’re dealing with means we can’t have humans in the loop anymore. To act quickly, we need to focus on automation – and that’s where our work is centered.”

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