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National Institute for Health Research

CLIENT STORY

Accelerating urgent health studies with digital innovation

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) provides the infrastructure for world-class health and care research to take place in England. It helps partners across research institutions, charities and industry work together on new ways to tackle disease and improve the nation’s health. Information held in a network of online data repositories is often central to this research. To take researchers directly to the data they need, we developed innovative search functionality for the NIHR’s digital platform. This large-scale implementation – the first ever of Google Cloud Search in the UK public sector – is now helping research teams work more efficiently and free up vital time to focus on urgent health challenges.

 

Key successes

  • completed a UK public sector-first delivery of Google Cloud Search on schedule in face of emerging pandemic

  • adopted an agile approach to ensure and accelerate delivery at a critical time

  • delivered new search functionality to make essential data more easily discoverable for 8,000 NIHR users

  • cut average time it takes research managers to get to required data by over 90 per cent

Applying innovation to accelerate research

It takes many minds to unlock new ways to treat disease and improve health. As a result, research projects supported by the NIHR involve thousands of researchers located in government departments, universities, hospitals and private companies around the country. Research teams typically draw on a wide range of data sources, including vast, online data sets, to advance their understanding. Yet locating data within this complex ecosystem can be difficult and waste valuable time.

With the launch of Google’s new Cloud Search product, we saw an exciting opportunity to simplify the search process and free up time for more productive work. Cloud Search uses machine intelligence to provide a unified search experience across the G-suite applications. Embedding new Cloud Search functionality in the NIHR digital hub would enable its 8,000 users to access the information they needed directly rather than searching across a range of online resources.

PA assisted us in two very important ways. First, it gave us unbiased advice, which is exceptionally important when we’re making big decisions about our future. Second, we were able to benefit from its knowledge, expertise, and experience in the public and private sectors.

Justin Riordan-Jones, Head of Systems and Information (Research), Department of Health & Social Care

Establishing benefits and value

The proposed implementation would be the first-ever, large-scale deployment of Cloud Search in the UK public sector. We were confident we could get it right. We’ve been a technology partner to the NIHR for more than five years, helping develop the best possible technology framework to support research teams. Reflecting the strength of this relationship, the NIHR gave the green light for an initial discovery phase. We’ve also been a Google Premier Partner for almost a decade, so have extensive expertise in aligning new Google products with existing G-suite services.

This phase is crucial to our approach. We look at what it will take to deploy new technology successfully and what benefits and value it will deliver for the organisation. Through a series of workshops with NIHR teams, we identified a wide range of opportunities to simplify convoluted user journeys for research managers, data stewards, business intelligence analysts and communication specialists. Our findings, highlighting the real-world potential of technology innovation, and our ability to translate complicated technical language into meaningful insights, enabled the NIHR to see the implementation was worth progressing.

Staying agile to keep delivery on track

Our timelines for implementation were ambitious. We needed to build a new tool around Cloud Search, connecting to the 14 key data sets used by research teams, and carry out an aesthetic redesign of the hub homepage where the new tool would be embedded. We planned to complete within three months. Yet as the project unfolded, the context in which we were working changed dramatically. The emerging COVID-19 pandemic forced our team and the wider NIHR team to begin working remotely. By the scheduled launch date, the UK was in lockdown. We had to ensure we worked together seamlessly to ensure we still met our deadline on time and on budget.

The way we organised was key. We assembled a diverse mix of experts – in digital, software engineering, business analysis, web design and programme management – to work together in a ‘pod’. This allowed us to progress different aspects of the implementation in parallel from the outset and maximise progress before lockdown kicked in.

Our tight-knit pod switched smoothly to remote working, maintaining the weekly schedule of sprints set out in our agile delivery plan. Each sprint involved presenting the newest version of the evolving solution, taking user feedback and working this into the next iteration. This frequent input from users kept our design and development work right on course, helping us deliver the finished solution faster.

Securing major gains in efficiency

The new search functionality, now embedded in a redesigned hub homepage that prioritises usability, is making a dramatic difference to productivity. For a research manager, for example, the user journey to required data is, on average, over 90 per cent faster. This is saving research managers up to 125 hours a week, time that can be dedicated to more productive outcomes. Other hub users have seen similar savings in the time they spend searching out data.

As the pandemic unfolds, the productivity gains made from smarter search are vital. Since the pandemic began, the NIHR has launched 50 urgent public health studies into the effects of the virus, including two major studies of possible vaccines. Cloud Search has enabled research managers to launch these studies in days, not weeks.

In addition, the technology framework we’ve helped the NIHR to develop over recent years means the infrastructure to support home and remote working is already in place. The digital hub, which offers services such as email and remote meetings alongside the new search functionality, is accessible to all research partners around the country. As a result, it is fostering collaboration and helping partners work together more effectively. This will be vital as they respond to the pressing challenge of finding new ways to protect and improve the health of the nation.

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James Mucklow

PA digital expert