As part of a national agency’s COVID-19 response, 4C were challenged with rolling out a new reporting and visualisation solution to replace Excel. It had to meet the needs of 500 users at hundreds of organisations and be ready in just three weeks. We talk to 4C Business Intelligence Specialist Evelina Persson, and 4C Head of Research, Alex Jarl, about rapid service launches and the importance of data visualisation, being agile and meeting strict security requirements.
How did 4C Strategies get involved?
Alex: A national agency had been tasked with co-ordinating resource management, assignment and tracking of medical equipment, supplies and personnel. This required continuous updates on staffing, equipment stock, COVID-19 infection rate and hospital occupancy levels, among other things. Reporting at that time involved around 500 stakeholders mailing spreadsheets daily, where they were taken care of centrally by five full-time employees. The agency wanted a more effective solution that provided a continuously updated common operational picture to support evidence-based decision-making. It had to reduce the burden on resources and be up and running in a matter of weeks. In other words, an automated pandemic data reporting tool was required.
What was your reaction when you heard the timeline?
Evelina: We knew how important this was – contributing to the nation’s response to the pandemic. We were fully committed but in order for it to be a success, we had to make sure people would use it. There were 500 users spread across hundreds of organisations, and they were all familiar with Excel, so we had to make sure our solution was extremely intuitive. I quickly began interviewing people to identify which data points they had to report and what information they needed back, to read, review and take decisions. Based on this information, I could design dashboards with user-friendly data visualisations for the different user groups – hospitals, municipalities, regions, counties, and the agency. Of course, it helps that we have a great deal of experience from previous crisis management assignments. We know – to a large degree – what type of data people need to make evidence-based decisions in a crisis. Our goal was to give each user exactly what they needed in a clear and easy-to-understand tool, and not to overwhelm them with unnecessary information.
What methodology did you use to ensure the system was launched on time?
We had to be agile. What we delivered in three weeks didn’t have to be the final solution, but a user-friendly system that met requirements and could be built upon. Of course, we weren’t starting from scratch. We tailored our Exonaut® incident and crisis management software which is used by many organisations in the private and public sectors. For instance, over a thousand people use it worldwide for secure crisis communication at the European External Action Service (EEAS) where it played a key role in the repatriation of EU citizens in the early stages of the pandemic.
Despite there being only three weeks until launch, I applied the same methodology as I do in other projects, just more rapidly.
- Meet and talk with the customer and the users and define their needs
- Prioritise the needs based on holistic and individual goals
- Develop concepts to achieve the prioritised goals
- Define the production requirements
- Develop the initial solution
- Run test cycles with some users
- Assess results and make appropriate adjustments
- Implement the solution
- Train all the users
How did you prioritise in a project of this severity and importance?
Evelina: As mentioned, firstly we had to make sure it was easy for everybody to use. Then we looked at the key users’ needs. For instance, those making important country-wide decisions required a holistic view of the situation prior to other users. They needed this information to brief partners and government officials in order for them to take critical societal decisions.
At a more local level, we needed to provide hospitals and regions with information on their status, along with data on neighbouring hospitals and regions. Therefore, we built a map function with red and green alerts to show which areas were likely to need support in the next few days. This enabled them to identify which regions they could borrow equipment or staff from if necessary. Visualising this type of information in easy-to-understand real-time dashboards made a big difference for them.
This is highly sensitive data, how did you manage the security?
Alex: Exonaut is used in high-security environments on a daily basis. It’s designed from the ground up to run in an air-gapped/online/hybrid environment, i.e. as a primary–secondary solution to safeguard data integrity. However, the daily reporting from the different actors was not sensitive, it was the aggregated information and trends that were considered highly sensitive information.
Due to the tight timeframe, aggregated data was stored in the 4C secure environment at launch. As the project moved forward, we then transitioned the process to the agency’s secure environment without any interruption to reporting. I’d spent the early stages of the assignment analysing their existing architecture so I was confident we could achieve this without any hiccups.
How did you manage to train hundreds of users to use a new solution in such a short timeframe?
Alex: Three weeks into the project, we were ready to launch. For the sake of efficiency, we ran a one-hour training workshop simultaneously for all the users. We are talking about people who are busy working on the pandemic response, so time was critical. Anybody who couldn’t attend could watch a video of the training workshop.
With hundreds of people gathered online from around the country, we introduced them to Exonaut and the new way to report information, before opening the floor for questions. It went incredibly smoothly. The software included an integrated support tool and we provided a dedicated support hotline. Amazingly, nobody got in touch with us about how to use the system, they understood how to use it from day one.
Why do you think it was so easy to win over users?
Evelina: In a nutshell, it was simple and intuitive on the frontend, while providing accurate and structured data at the backend. It helped that the Exonaut user interface had been branded according to the department’s graphical profile and that users could access it directly via its website. This built trust.
Also, when reporting information, users only had to answer critical questions that they knew the answer to. Depending on their role and their organisation, i.e., hospital, elderly care home or municipality, they would be presented with different questions. We implemented tick box answers to questions where possible to further simplify and improve the user experience. The system also supported the option to quickly introduce new questions to users – something that is critical in a crisis.
Can you summarise why it was a success?
Alex: Our smart dashboards provided a local and holistic picture of the evolving COVID-19 situation in near real-time from which evidence-based, resource management decisions could be taken. This simply was not possible before. And when people found out what we had achieved in such a short space of time, the solution became the benchmark for a common operational picture across government departments.
This was not just an ordinary project. Our team shared a common belief in the overall goal of facilitating the nation’s COVID-19 response in a time of real need. Looking back, we are proud to have contributed to the collective effort, while advancing 4C’s our mission to build a safer society.
Evelina: We listened to the users and delivered what they needed, which made their jobs easier. In the process we automated the work of five full-time roles, allowing these people to concentrate on other important duties in the COVID-19 response. As a company, we worked collaboratively to deliver a solution in record time, which gave us a real sense of satisfaction.
Our company mission is to combine the power of digital innovation with industry expertise to build a safer society, and we certainly achieved that with this solution.
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