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The National Institute for Health Research on connecting through cloud to fight Covid-19

As the research arm for the NHS, the National Institute for Health Research has played a key role in coordinating efforts to find treatments, diagnostics and vaccines for Covid-19 during the pandemic, with the help of Google Cloud

Working in partnership with the National Health Service, and funded by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) collaborates with universities, local governments, research teams and the general public to carry out life-changing medical research projects. 

“The NIHR is one of those hidden gems inside the NHS,” Justin Riordan-Jones, head of systems and information at the DHSC, tells Computer Weekly. “And our job usually means people’s lives get better in about 10 years’ time, as a result of the work we do.”

This year, though, the organisation has been actively working to improve the lives of the nation in a much shorter timeframe, as the NIHR and its stakeholders have worked tirelessly to help bring the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic under control and help save lives.

“The past 10 months have really highlighted just how important and vital research is to the health and wealth of the nation, and we were delighted to be able to be part of rolling out the vaccines, rolling out research and all that good stuff,” he says.

Rapid response research

The onset of the pandemic in early 2020 prompted a rapid shift in priorities in the NIHR, as it set about coordinating 50 urgent public health studies – including two focusing on possible vaccines – into the effects of Covid-19.

The overarching aim of this work was to gather as much clinical and epidemiological evidence as possible to inform the UK government’s response to the pandemic, while supporting efforts to create new diagnostic systems, treatments and vaccines to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.  

Research initiatives on this kind of scale typically take months, even years, to get off the ground, but the NIHR was able to do so this time around in a matter of weeks, with the help of its Google Cloud-based Digital Hub.

“The NIHR is one of those hidden gems inside the NHS, and our job usually means people’s lives get better in about 10 years’ time, as a result of the work we do.”
Justin Riordan-Jones, DHSC

Described by Riordan-Jones as the “fundamental backbone” to the NIHR’s operations, the Digital Hub provides the organisation’s 8,000 employees with access to Google’s portfolio of cloud-based communication, collaboration and productivity tools, formerly known as G Suite.

The setup was originally devised in 2014 to bring a little more order to the way the NIHR worked, both in-house and with its external research partners and stakeholders, by replacing the patchwork of data repositories and collaboration tools they relied on to work together.

“We wanted a solution that would empower us to operate as a single corporate entity over multiple locations, multiple platforms and multiple scenarios,” says Riordan-Jones. “Our [previous] system worked in the beginning, but the lack of consistency was starting to slow down our progress.”

Working with technology consultancy PA Consulting, the NIHR embarked on finding a suitable replacement for this patchwork of productivity tools, before deciding to press ahead with the deployment of Google G-Suite, which has since been rebranded as Google Workspace.

“Fundamentally, choosing Google came down to its development pathway,” he says, following a market evaluation of four similar products, which resulted in Google Workspace emerging as a front runner along with one other.

“At that stage, there was very little functionality difference between them. What was hugely different was people’s acceptance of how well [the two systems] worked, and the ease of operation so they could migrate swiftly [to Google],” he adds.

“But it was the fact we could already see a development pathway for two to three years at that point, which we knew would be beneficial to us. So it was the vision and clarity of where Google was going with the product that made us choose it.”

The Google Workspace deployment provided the organisation’s employees with access to their own corporate email addresses for the first time via Gmail, as well as video-conferencing tools in the form of Google Meet, and cloud-based document storage and collaboration through Google Drive.

“Rather than having to host multiple systems in different places and locations, and a [heterogenous] technology stack that we’re forever running around trying to keep up to date, we have something in place now that that is much more compartmentalised and much easier to maintain,” says Riordan-Jones.

The setup has also served to give its employees a greater sense of corporate identity, as well as make the productivity portion of its IT estate easier to manage and control.  

“We have seen a much greater corporate approach than we ever had before, so people now act as if they are the NIHR and not ‘body x inside the NIHR’, and we have reassurance and know that the hub is behaving the way we want it to,” he continues.

“We also know we are benefiting from the levels of security that Google wraps around it, and we have greater control and visibility over how it’s working [compared with the previous system].”

Relying on a single system to fulfil its collaboration and productivity requirements has unlocked sizeable cost savings for the NIHR as well.

“When we rolled this out in 2014-15, we were the biggest public sector implementation of G Suite technology at that stage, although we’ve since been overtaken because we’ve proved how well it works,” says Riordan-Jones.

“Over the years, [that has unlocked] £10-15m pounds worth of savings, which has gone into research rather than technology endeavours.”

Continuous development and improvement

Even so, six years is a long time in tech, and the Digital Hub has been subject to numerous tweaks to its functionality in that time, based on user feedback and the NIHR’s wider organisational goals, says Riordan-Jones.

“We don’t sit there and say this is the definitive version,” he says. “We are constantly looking at how it needs to be improved, based on the feedback we get from the users and [our] interpretation of where we need to be going for our digital strategy.”

The latest iteration of the Digital Hub has been in place since March 2020, with its original functionality bolstered by the inclusion of Google Cloud Search, which integrates with Google Workspace to make it faster and easier for users to locate data stored within its entire infrastructure. 

“We are constantly looking at how [the Digital Hub] needs to be improved, based on the feedback we get from the users and [our] interpretation of where we need to be going for our digital strategy”
Justin Riordan-Jones, DHSC

The NIHR’s workforce is distributed across various offices, universities and hospitals in the UK, which had led to some data being unintentionally siloed and isolated within these locations, making it inaccessible to some employees who need access to it.

Over the course of 16 weeks, this data sharing pain point was addressed through a Google Cloud Search-focused redesign of the Digital Hub, which has been instrumental in enabling the NIHR to rapidly refocus and coordinate its Covid-19 research efforts.

The long-standing productivity and collaboration functionality of the Digital Hub has also come into its own during the pandemic, as employees have grappled with working remotely.

In fact, its employees have taken to this new way of working like ducks to water, with the NIHR reporting a 379% uptick in the use of Google’s cloud-based video-conferencing service Meet during the first two months of the first UK lockdown. Furthermore, use of Google Drive, the search giant’s online storage and document collaboration offering, was up 198%.

Foundation laid for a digital future

With the reworked Digital Hub now firmly embedded in the NIHR, Riordan-Jones says the scene is set for the organisation to push its digital ambitions further than ever before, following the appointment of John Nother as its chief digital officer in March 2020.

One of Nother’s top priorities since joining the organisation has been to set out a five-year digital strategy for the NIHR, which is geared towards streamlining data sharing processes within the organisation through the adoption of what Riordan-Jones describes as a “do once and share” approach.

As an example, Riordan-Jones cites the process research organisations have to go through to secure ethical approval from the Health Research Authority before they can start work, which requires them to submit details about the nature of the project they want to embark on.

“So you tell this organisation all that information and then you come to the NIHR which helps you run that research inside the NHS, and we ask for all that same information again,” he says.

“It is very simple to say we should be sharing that data, but unfortunately, due to legal considerations and other factors, it is not easy to do so at the moment. But we’re working our way through it, so that somebody who arrives at the beginning of the research journey only gets asked the absolute questions that need to be asked, rather than having to repeat themselves over and over,” he adds.

All this repetition slows down the pace at which the NIHR and its stakeholders are able to work, but – as the organisation’s rapid response to the pandemic has shown – it is possible to modify such processes to get where it needs to be faster.

“Because of the way the response to the pandemic was organised, we were able to modify processes in some respects to do that. And we have learned a lot as a result about what we can do, how we can do it, and where we can do it,” says Riordan-Jones.

“Hopefully, we’re going to take some of the lessons learned from this exercise now and roll those forward because we have proof, even in unfortunate circumstances, that it works and we can roll that forward.”

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