Robert Erhardt is chief technology officer for the Zoological Society of San Diego, which operates the San Diego Zoo, its Wild Animal Park, the Beckman Centre for Conservation Research and the Foundation for the Zoological Society. Prior to joining the Zoological Society in 2001, he was CIO at Disney Regional Entertainment.
What brought you to the zoo?
We spent a lot of time vacationing in San Diego and spent a lot of time at the zoo. When the call came, I said, "Gee whiz, that's a tough one to pass up". The second thing was Disney was changing its strategy to shift to more of a Microsoft model, where they are selling intellectual property and not getting into brick-and-mortar businesses. It wasn't going to be the same business environment going forward, so I was up for another challenge. I like to tell people I left a Mickey Mouse organisation to come to a place that's a real zoo.
What's the most fun thing about this job?
Every day, we're having an impact on the future of species survival around the world. Because of habitat destruction and natural and man-made environmental issues, we have become the last opportunity for some species to survive. There aren't many jobs you can go to and have that kind of a mission in front of you.
What does a CTO do for a zoo?
It's several businesses rolled into one. We have front-of-house things like ticket sales and merchandise sales and food service sales, and point-of-sale and inventory systems to support all of those. Then you have catering opportunities with people using the zoo as a venue for events.
Then you get into the next layer, which is the animal care layer. That's where I've had the most challenge and the most interest from a technology perspective.
What's the coolest project you've worked on?
We are collaborating with the rest of the world to develop a product named the Zoological Information Management System. It's going to be a .Net-based, state-of-the-art tool that will allow animal care folks to change the way they do business in managing massive collections in zoos and aquariums around the world. ZIMS will revolutionise the way business processes surrounding animal care are done.
When did ZIMS launch, and where are you now with it?
We started five and a half years ago. The Zoological Society of San Diego has played a critical role in the development and ultimate rollout. Right now, we're 85% to 90% done.
What will ZIMS do, exactly?
I'm sorry to say that even in an institution as large as ours, the vast majority of clinical records are paper-based. That limits your ability to do research. When someone has a clinical file out on an individual or group, that data is not available to anyone else.
When ZIMS comes online, all of that data will be available. It will allow us to share best practices around the world for animal care. Organisations will be able to go online and get reliable information instantaneously. It will be a real-time [application service provider] model.
For example, standard red blood cell counts for various species of primates are virtually unknown today. With ZIMS, we'll have a central repository where we come up with a set of standards and normative ranges for those standards, or morphometrics, to let institutions know whether their individuals of a particular species are healthy.
Even humans don't have electronic medical records yet.
When this project is done, we will be light-years ahead of human medicine in our ability to share data.
You also have a panda-cam that's pretty popular.
When our first panda [Hua Mei] was born, we got calls from local employers saying that their employees were spending way too much time watching our baby panda [online]. You know you're having an impact when that starts to happen.
How much traffic did you get?
It was in the millions - 9 million page views for that month. We average about 5,000 page views a day.
Do you use any emerging technologies?
We use RFID [for] identification of the animals. We're using radio telemetry extensively in the field -- for example, in our condor-release project in Baja, [California]. All of those condors are fitted with radio tracking collars. Some of them are using satellite telemetry, and others are using a cellular-based technology on a localised basis. Then we have radio telemetry tracking tools our scientists use to locate any individual through triangulation.
We're investigating the potential of using handheld devices for our keepers to be able to keep their data logs and observations. The handheld devices will be put in cradles and interface with ZIMS to collect the daily keeper information.
What is the least-fun part of your job?
We're not-for-profit, and we have to watch every penny. We're cognisant of the fact that every dollar we spend on technology is a dollar we can't spend on conservation. So we have to be very prudent about making those investments.
How big of an issue is security for you?
It's extremely frustrating. We are continually dealing with it, and it is a continually escalating drain on our resources. Our collections are not too much at risk [from terrorism]. They are at risk from animal extremists who do not wish us well. We constantly have to be vigilant to make sure our security efforts are sufficient to keep [potential] intruders outside of our firewall.