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CIO interview: Danny Attias, chief digital and information officer, Anthony Nolan

Digital transformation takes on a whole new purpose when it's helping to save lives – but leading IT for a charity also has its satisfying technology challenges

After spending almost 20 years in private sector IT, Danny Attias decided it was time to give something back. In May 2016, having previously worked for John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, and Grass Roots Group, Attias joined Anthony Nolan, the UK charity that works to save the lives of people with blood cancer and blood disorders.

“I was ready for a change,” he says. “I particularly wanted to go into an organisation that didn’t just work for the purpose of making profit for shareholders, but that had some more purpose. So when the role came up, it was an absolute no-brainer.”

Attias joined Anthony Nolan as its first-ever CIO. Although the charity had employed infrastructure managers and an interim IT director, this was the first time it had appointed a CIO to sit on the leadership team, reporting to the chief executive.

“That decision demonstrates the level of maturity that Anthony Nolan had reached – the recognition of data and technology as being vital to what we do,” he says.

“We’re trying to identify donors who are in a position to save the lives of patients. We fundamentally work on the business of collecting their data, their DNA and their health data, and trying to match that to the needs of patients.”

Attias says his priority when he joined Anthony Nolan was to get the basics right. He had to stabilise the charity’s infrastructure, establish information security and – most fundamentally of all – create a software development capability.

“The digital element is simply bringing the customer to the forefront”

Danny Attias, Anthony Nolan

“When I joined, people were saying they wanted apps and portals,” he says. “And I said, my objective for the coming year was simply to establish a software development capability. Because right now, we’ve got three people who are coding in languages that range from five to 20 years old, who are simply putting sticking plasters over legacy systems. And that approach doesn’t match with the appetite and ambition of the organisation.”

The charity might have understood the importance of technology, but it was not making a leap towards digitisation. Legacy systems were crumbling, unreliable, inaccessible, and couldn’t adapt quickly enough. After helping to build stronger IT foundations, Attias says the charity has now become interested in broader digital transformation.

“We’ve written something into our business strategy that talks about ‘One Anthony Nolan’,” he says. “That’s a really important because, at the moment, we have IT services that relate to patients, to donors, to transplant centres, and so on. But they’re all mismatched – you come in and you consume a particular service.

“One Anthony Nolan is about starting to bring all that together. And the digital element is simply bringing the customer to the forefront. We’ve finally got to the point where the entire board have said, ‘OK, we need somebody who’s responsible for joining threads and providing a digital offering for the organisation’.”

Leading an information revolution

The broader recognition of all things digital led to Attias extending his IT leadership role in July, becoming chief digital and information officer. Although he still fulfils the roles and responsibilities he held as CIO, he now has strategic responsibility for Anthony Nolan’s digital ambitions.

Like his tech leadership peers, Attias has spent much of 2020 helping his organisation to remain operationally effective during the challenges created by Covid-19. Some of that work is still continuing, be that implementing cloud services or providing reliable devices.

“We’re just in the process of finalising the delivery of optimum infrastructure, which involves providing the right tools for every single member of staff to be able to continue to work remotely as effectively as they can in the office,” he says.

His other main priority relates to continuing digital transformation. “For every single customer that we have – and those customers are our patients and their donors, and their supporters and their hospitals – it’s thinking about digital services, and then aligning the gaps with the objectives and the opportunities,” he says.

For donors, that digitisation process means providing the maximum possible contact and opportunity. For transplant centres and hospitals, the process means reducing the time to transplant – so, finding a donor, getting the cells, and getting donations approved as quickly as possible. Digitisation and the effective use of information is critical to this dual approach.

“We can’t make any of that work without data,” says Attias. “Most of what the hospitals want from us is continuous information. So our data team is making sure that we’ve got the right amount of information to not only understand what we have and what we’re doing, but also where we’re going and what we should be doing.”

Using data to make crucial decisions

One of the things Attias identified quickly on his arrival in 2016 was the requirement to create a central data function. Before his appointment, the data team was churning information and trying to create insight without holding a position of authority.

Today, there’s a very different approach – the centralised data team “holds the flag” on tools, processes and information, but they do so through networking across the organisation.

“What we now have is a data community that works as one hybrid unit”
Danny Attias, Anthony Nolan

“And that’s key,” says Attias. “What we now have is a data community that works as one hybrid unit, with the same tools, the same principles, and a lot of peer reviewing and support of each other, plus a lot of flexibility.”

One of the key tasks is to enhance donor registration and matching. About 2,000 people require bone-marrow or stem-cell transplants in the UK each year. Matching each of these patients to a donor is challenging, and Anthony Nolan has been working with tech specialist Alteryx to help overcome some of its issues.

Alteryx provides a data warehouse that allows everyone across the organisation to reference a consolidated and single version of the truth. The technology pulls together huge datasets from a range of disparate sources. The result is a fast and intuitive data platform that allows Anthony Nolan staff to make potentially life-saving decisions.

“The benefits are all about time,” says Attias. “More often than not, the amount of time that it takes to deliver cells to a patient is absolutely critical to the outcomes. The visibility of every single step – what’s happening, how long each step is taking – is key. If we boil everything down, it’s about speed and efficiency – and the data platform has given us that in droves.”

Supporting innovative software development

Just as Attias has created a strong data function, so he fulfilled one of his other ambitions on joining Anthony Nolan – to establish an internal software development capability.

“That’s working beautifully,” he says. “We’ve got over 10 developers now and they’re churning out amazing features every two weeks.”

“We’ve got over 10 developers churning out amazing features every two weeks”
Danny Attias, Anthony Nolan

The team recently delivered a new predictive search algorithm to match patients with donors. The charity is providing that tool to the World Marrow Donor Association, which can use it to help improve the processes of every registry around the globe.

“That’s all about trying to find the best match, but also doing it faster and more efficiently,” says Attias. “We’re open-sourcing that code. We’re packaging it up in GitHub with Terraform automated scripts, so that anyone in the world can use it and then they can feed back into the development cycle.”

Attias refers to two other big software development projects. First, Transform, which aims to improve the supporter experience. “The project combines a new website, a new CRM [customer relationship management], new ways of working and agile delivery,” he says. “It’s about giving personalised support or experiences, whether you’re a volunteer, a donor, or you run marathons for us.”

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The first element of Transform covers volunteering and went live recently as part of the agile methodology used to deliver the project. Over the next 12 to 15 months, the aim is to replace all of the organisation’s legacy systems with Transform systems and services.

Another big development project at Anthony Nolan involves the creation of a DNA-typing technology for the laboratory. Attias says the development team has been able to rewrite all of the charity’s laboratory management information systems during 2020. The DNA-typing technology went live recently and has had a big impact.

“Within three days, we had already seen incredible results in terms of the speed of DNA typing, the failure rates, and just the confidence in the information that our data team have been able to deliver,” he says. “We just never had that level of information in the past.”

Taking digital transformation to the next level

Attias says his main focus going forward is digitisation, including the creation of personalised and interactive digital services for the organisation’s key customers. For transplant centres, for example, digitisation will involve pushing patient information to specialists sooner, so  they can communicate and identify opportunities more quickly.

Donors are another key customer set. While donors can use digital services to join the charity’s register, the majority of membership communication takes place via email or telephone. Attias is keen to make much more effective use of online channels.

“We want our members to know they’re part of this process – and what that process could mean for them,” he says. “We want to create different ways to interact with them.”

The other key group of customers is patients. The charity produced its first patient-focused app a couple of years ago, which Attias says was about the charity “dipping its toe in the water”. The aim now is to take lessons from that project and build better services for patients.

“We want to help them get the best possible outcomes,” he says. “That’s about the hospitals providing transplants as quickly as is practical, but it’s also about providing patient support and getting a better understanding of their journeys and experiences. It’s about interacting with patients through digital technology.”

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