When an IT leader at an aquarium realized his team, along with many other similar organizations, were swimming in a sea of outdated technology, he decided to do something about it. While replenishing his company’s tech pool with new tools wasn’t an option due to costs, he discovered a way to sharpen his and his staffs’ tech skills by forming a unique user group.

Hans Keller, IT manager at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and about 50 other IT workers within similar business enterprises, have created a peer training group for IT workers at zoos and aquariums worldwide. Participants range from the upper echelon—IT managers, directors of IT, directors of development, accounting controllers—to hands-on staff, such as animal care workers.

Through this unique communication group, members swap tips on organizing data, network management, and desktop management. For example, one unexpected boon was that 30 percent of the companies represented by members relied on the same software package, Raiser’s Edge, for development and grant funding. So there was an instant support group within the user group for that software.

The group’s members represent large and small institutions. The American Zoo & Aquarium Association helps out by hosting a listserv at no cost. When the members held their very first conference, the association paid for all the expenses. Today, each registrant pays a $150 fee for the three-day conference, a rather low price for an IT conference. This past September, they met at the South Carolina Aquarium. Keller is hoping for corporate sponsorship once the group becomes more well known. Additional support would help bring in members who can’t afford the conference fee. For example, one year, a South African zoo employee, who handles that zoo’s IT affairs, attended the conference for free, thanks to sponsorship by two U.S. zoos.

Sharing goals and frustrations
The peer training group not only allows many members to share tech insight and help each other with IT hurdles, it also helps them come up with ways to work around the biggest tech issue that most zoos and aquariums share, namely that many of the IT departments are new and funding is low. And even at large zoos and aquariums, a big chunk of the technology being used is the result of grants and donations from tech companies.

Bob Dulski, director of information services at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago, is, fortunately, from a large institution, which means that, most of the time, its budget can support IT initiatives. The $50 million not-for-profit zoo employs 500 full-time workers. Six full-time employees and one part-timer are in the zoo’s IT department.

“IT is relatively new to zoos,” Dulski said, noting that the Brookfield Zoo has a wide range of various desktops in play—everything from a 2-GHz Dell to a Pentium II that’s over five years old.

The business environment poses specific challenges as well for IT departments. On his zoo’s 216-acre campus, which he described as “not the most friendly place for computers,” they’ve adopted some wireless handhelds, mostly at food kiosks and retail gift shops. There are 600 pieces of technology currently in operation on the campus, he said.

The wireless handhelds also help guide visitors through the zoo’s animal and wildlife habitats. Wireless tablet PCs (costing $1,700 each), some donated from Microsoft and some via a federal grant, are helping blind and deaf students in the Chicago Public Schools navigate within the zoo.

The IT staff at the Denver Zoo, which recently received software from Microsoft at no cost, are helping other zoos get similar donations, noted Keller.

Using tech to share knowledge
The group is also adopting new technologies to help share information and insight about their particular enterprises. For example, a dolphin habitat researcher at the Brookfield Zoo is now broadcasting via IT video conferencing.

“A lot of [group interaction] is picking somebody’s brain,” said Dulski, about the peer group. When it came time for his zoo to award a contract to a fast-food operator inside of the dolphin habitat, he turned to the IT listserv to inquire whether anyone knew the vendor and had worked with them.

“Responses come back immediately. These e-mails further direct contact between two institutions,” explained Keller. “It’s a great peer effort to bounce ideas off of each other before launching into something.”

Since members have begun interacting, several enterprises have played critical roles in getting projects off the ground. The Memphis Zoo helped the London Zoo with ticketing and membership systems, and the National Aquarium graciously donated code to the listserv members seeking to develop a Palm Pilot application.

And, just as importantly, the group is helping members gain a greater view of how their IT organization compares to others within their unique business sector. For example, the Brookfield Zoo recently released to the listserv results of a report examining how its IT department compared to the rest of the zoo’s business departments. The survey compared the number of IT workers to total workers, IT budget to total budget, and staff to devices maintained. Using that industry standard, other zoos and aquariums soon began working on their own reports.