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Behind Hakai: Chris Davis - Hakai Institute

Behind Hakai: Chris Davis

A blog series highlighting the people who play an integral role behind the scenes to ensure the data keeps flowing and the Hakai Institute keeps running.

As an IT specialist at an organization that thrives on data and technology, Chris Davis has his fingers in many project pies. Sure, he can help with your personal computer problems—a task that has only become more important over the past two pandemic years—but he also works with much larger computers. These machines are constantly collecting data in a variety of unusual locales. If a computer is involved, Chris probably is, too.

Started at Hakai



IT specialist

Home Base

Victoria, BC

What do you do at the Hakai Institute?

I work on everything computer-related [for the Hakai Institute, Hakai Magazine, and the Quadra Center for Coastal Dialogue]: from staff and researchers’ laptops, all the way to putting computers and data collection systems in airplanes, on buoys, underwater, on ships, on lab benches, into tanks.

What got you into this kind of work?

I’m a geologist by training. I did a number of years of exploration geology—taking soil and rock samples—and all of that needed data management. I became the tech person in the camps that I was working in. In the winters, a big component of geologic work was data management. I got into the programming end of things to streamline and better organize data, and I really enjoyed that. Then as I wanted to settle down a bit, I was looking for work that wasn’t primarily field based. I had [previously] kayaked by Calvert Island, so I was aware of Hakai. When I saw an opportunity pop up, I jumped on that.

My job with Hakai started out as data management for oceanography projects. I see a lot of parallels between geologic and oceanographic data management—you’re collecting samples and you’ve got to make sure that these records are stored correctly, that the data is complete, that you follow through on the lab processes that get created when you take either a rock or water sample, and get them to the final product of lab analysis that can be used for further research.

How has the Hakai Institute changed since you started your job?

Hakai has changed immensely in the past seven years. When I started, our primary operations were on Calvert Island, and that was the big thing. We’ve branched out so much since then, and with that we’ve grown our computer networks, and the number of people and projects. Quadra Island is now one of our major centers, so I’ve been a part of building the networks, the science instrumentation, and all the sensors.

Chris Davis’s job takes him to a variety of locations, such as the University of Victoria’s data center—where servers process data from the Airborne Coastal Observatory—and into watersheds around the Calvert Island Ecological Observatory. Photos by Shawn Hately

What is the role of IT in the development of new facilities?

When we were building the Marna Lab, we really needed to be part of the design process to make sure that we could monitor the lab systems, as well as the science experiments. This included making space for server equipment and ensuring all of the sensors could be connected. We needed to be part of building the system that’s used to put carbon dioxide into the water, for example. The system was initially designed just to have a single set point—the value you want to achieve, or in this case the amount of CO2 that’s flowing out—but they wanted a dynamic set point so that, like nature, it changes over time. We built a system to programmatically change the set point at various time intervals, all based on the scientists’ requirements. They look at what pattern they would want to follow for CO2 levels, and we can re-create that.

Another thing we’re doing is helping to get our ancient DNA lab up and running. That’s a really neat facility being built right now [at the Quadra Island Ecological Observatory]. Because they need a clean, controlled atmosphere for their experiments, [Shawn Hately and I] are helping to get the systems running as they should—to make sure airflow is happening through the filters, and to have a reliable network to get the data out to the people who want it—and monitoring the building systems to alert when things aren’t operating as they should.

How has your job changed with the pandemic?

There’s obviously less travel, so I haven’t visited all the different sites as much as we usually would. Our whole workforce is working from home, so that’s introduced a whole bunch of new requirements for access to data and servers for remote work. Before the pandemic, we had maybe a dozen people on the VPN that connects everything together. We’ve got nearly two-thirds of our workforce on the VPN now, working remotely from home, still with access to all the data. 

We’ve adapted. Tech support has always sort of been an in-person thing, but really it doesn’t matter where we are—we support the whole organization from wherever we are when people need it.

What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on for Hakai?

I love that I get to be a part of all the different work that we’re doing. I get to work with some pretty cool instruments, like the hyperspectral camera for the Airborne Coastal Observatory—I helped install that. I’ve also had a lot of fun helping out with the sensor network—it means I get to get out and hike around in the bush and get that fieldwork component.

The other one is the genomics side of the Marna Lab. I help them with their data processing servers and data management, but I also get to learn about the science that they’re doing and how they sequence DNA. I didn’t know that before working with them, and so learning about how the science happens has been really cool.

What is the least typical IT task or project you’ve done?

Building laser altimeters to help measure whales is probably the least typical IT task that there is. I built them for Keith [Holmes] and the geospatial team; Keith does these drone missions to measure whales [with the UBC Marine Mammal Research Unit]. The laser altimeter measures the height of the drone, and then they can use the camera’s optical properties to measure the whale. I think that’s one of the cooler projects I’ve gotten to work on.

This isn’t an original design, but I don’t think there are very many laser altimeters to measure whales out there. I ended up building four of them. We had a model to work off; I redesigned it a bit to use more common parts and streamline the process. At the same time, you don’t want to change the design too much, because you want to ensure that the science is repeatable, so using the same components and making sure that the measurements are the same between the devices, and between our research and where it was originally designed—I think that’s really important.

Laser altimeter components laid out (first photo) and set up on drones ready to help measure whales (second photo). Photos by Keith Holmes

What are you excited about in the next few months?

I’m really excited about helping the ocean acidification team install a [CO2 sensor] system on the Seaspan Royal tug in the next few months. I helped them out with the data management end of the Columbia ferry project, too—how do we get the data off the ship as it’s doing its rounds. It’s really cool, going to these ships and seeing how we can install these instruments, and actually learning about the science that’s going on behind it.

You’re one of the only Hakai employees who has hiked on Calvert Island to Mount Buxton and back in a day. What was that experience like?

It was a very memorable trip. It’s something I will never do again, but at the same time it was really neat to see the terrain from the ground. You’ve heard of the old IT saying “you’ve got to turn it off and on again”? We had to do that at our Mount Buxton weather station. We didn’t have a helicopter available, but we could hike up and get it done that day. The weather was good, and we were keen to try. We’ve done a lot of flying over the area to get to these mountaintop stations, but it was really neat to actually see how thick the bush is, how the terrain changes on the way up the mountain, and the watersheds—the water flowing through the streams as we were following them up. The thing that really stuck out was how tough the trees are that grow on the mountain. Seeing how they just sort of cling on for life in this fairly harsh environment was incredible. It also made the hike really tough. I remember coming back from that trip, and I was sore all over.

*This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.