Dunedin IT scene: town and gown

The influence of Otago University and Otago Polytechnic on Dunedin's IT culture

Arugably one of Dunedin's biggest strengths is the University of Otago's world-renowned medical school. There is a close collaboration between the hospital and the university, particularly in the area of commercial research.

While this involves IT expertise, the university’s head computer science Brendan McCane says it can be hard enticing undergraduates into academic careers. He recently advertised for a one-year Masters scholarship in New Zealand and Australia and had only one New Zealander apply. The reason, he suspects, is because it paid just $13,000 – and students find it more enticing to take a job and a salary of $50,000 (see Why universities are training industry-ready graduates).

Probably one of the most well known contributions the university has made to IT businesses is the research carried out by Geoff Wyvill which, McCane says, was the foundation for Animation Research Limited (the company that created the America’s Cup graphics).

Among the research with a commercial application at the faculty today is a search engine developed by Andrew Trotman that has been highlighted at the INEX evaluation forum. Fast and specific, the search engine can locate paragraphs on a page within a large document and it is a standard reference for testing other academic search engines around the world.

Meanwhile up the hill at the Otago Polytechnic Samuel Mann, associate IT professor at the Otago Polytechnic, is making sure his students are pitching their talents to businesses and are actively taking part in the internships facilitated by the Dunedin City Council. Mann teaches a class for third-year students in which they have to create practical solutions for a business – either their own or an existing company.

Some of the applications his students have developed include a virtual tour of Maori tourism sites for the iPhone, online forms for fishing vessels to record their catch at sea, and a mobile app for people to take photos of graffiti and send directly to the DCC so it can identifity where and when tagging has occurred.

Mann says students at the polytechnic aren’t generally the academic A+ students that go to the university but they are extremely hardworking and motivated. The course is very practical — his first year students recently built a website for a project building schools in Cambodia that his father is running.

Mann, who led a successful Facebook campaign to retain neurosurgery in Dunedin, is an adovocate for sustainable practices. He is currently advising the Save Hillside campaigners who want to retain the manufacture of locomatives in Dunedin and not see the government outsource work to China.

Mann says the closure of Fisher and Paykel’s factory in 2008 spelled the end of manufacturing in the city. He says the council is probably not chasing the big 2,000-strong employee businesses any longer; rather it is looking towards the weightless economy to provide growth in the future.

This is the second in a series of articles about the Dunedin IT scene. Tomorrow Computerworld looks at ISP Wireless Internet Connection (WIC) , founded and operated by former Otago University computer science faculty member Stu Fleming.

See also Dunedin IT scene: the art of creating a city for IT start-ups

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