Finding tech solutions


Associate Professor Helen Thompson is more interested in real-world challenges and issues than blue-sky research.

In 2023, Federation University’s Centre for eResearch and Digital Innovation (CeRDI) will turn 25 – a significant milestone for the centre that is a global leader in data interoperability and has developed many award-winning web-based spatial information and knowledge portals.

For nearly 20 years, Associate Professor Helen Thompson has been CeRDI’s director, having joined the research centre after working in finance and administration.

Today CeRDI is a highly successful research group that has an esteemed international reputation. CeRDI has more than 30 research, support and academic leads, 10 PhD students and an outstanding record of partnering with multiple organisations over many years in projects worth millions of dollars.

Associate Professor Thompson, who has a Doctorate in Business Administration, says CeRDI aims to help organisations understand “how new technologies can solve or make things easier in the real world”.

“I come from outside of the university sector and personally I’m much more interested in real-world challenges and issues rather than blue-sky research,” she says. “We’ve got these long-term programmatic research partnerships, and our partners trust us.”

“To have been around for 25 years is a testament to the world-class research and collaborative work that is being done at CeRDI – it is rare for a research centre to have survived and thrived for so long.”

CeRDI was established in 1998 and Associate Professor Thompson began working there a year later, initially writing business cases and securing funding. During the roll-out of the NBN she was recognised by the Australian Government as a National Broadband Champion for her role in advancing rural and regional economies through the uptake of broadband technologies.

As CeRDI is based in Ballarat, many of its long-term partnerships are with agricultural organisations such as Birchip Cropping Group, Precision Agriculture, the Grains Research and Development Corporation and Southern Farming Systems, and currently there’s a $6.5 million project with Australia’s largest beef producer, AACo.

However, helping agricultural companies adopt new technologies isn’t all CeRDI does, with ongoing projects in citizen science and with catchment management authorities.

“When you have the opportunity to work with people, organisations and communities for 10 to 20 years, as you’re listening, you often hear how similar issues are occurring in different organisations, so you can show them how someone else has dealt with it.” Associate Professor Helen Thompson

“A lot of our partners don’t know what they don’t know in terms of technology. It’s a bit of a black box to them. So one thing that we’re really good at is listening to their issues and working out where technology may play a role,” she says. “It’s an open systems approach, so we will try to adopt and adapt from what already exists, but often there’s a level of customisation.”

By mustering the university’s resources, Associate Professor Thompson and her team might have a groundwater scientist, soil scientist or psychologist working alongside database and IT specialists to build technological solutions with partners. “It’s a pretty unique academic and research area, but then we have a strong technical team that is transferring that science or social science to the real world,” she says.

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