by Edward Qualtrough

Francis Crick Institute CIO says state-of-the-art digital facility a chance to ‘land a new normal’

Feb 17, 2016
GovernmentIT Leadership

Francis Crick InstituteICT Director Alison Davis believes moving into the joint venture’s state-of-the-art building in Camden is a “great opportunity to land a new normal” when the biomedical research centre is at its 1500-person capacity by the end of 2016.

Named after British scientist Francis Crick, the institute is a partnership between the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, and London universities UCL, Imperial and King’s, and will be the biggest centre for biomedical research and innovation in Europe.

Davis, who joined the project in November 2013 and sits on the Francis Crick Institute executive management, told CIO UK she was in the phase of kitting out the building which lies just north of St Pancras station and The British Library, and hopes to have the data centre in by April so the team and can test services as some staff starting to move into the building over the summer.

Platform services

But Davis said that the real excitement for the CIO was in creating platform services and capabilities in order to see how the young community of scientists, academics and researchers find the most value in their new environment.

“Making sure the building delivers on its promise is my big challenge,” she said. “One of the pillars of the Crick vision is to pursue discovery without boundaries, another is to collaborate creatively. I want to ensure that the IT capabilities that we install in the building support the delivery of that promise.

“From an organisational perspective, we are not a greenfield, we carry a legacy of ways of working from the former institutes which have come together to form the Crick, but moving people is a really great time to land in a ‘new normal’.

“We are putting in platform services, with cloud-based email and unified comms. This isn’t ground breaking but the other individual institutions haven’t had these capabilities before.

“We have a young community of PhDs and postdocs – we’re dealing with a lot of younger people who are used to making the most of social media and the sort of capabilities we will be providing. I like being surprised, I don’t think IT should put stuff out there and know exactly how it is going to be used.

“You talk about platforms, but I like talking about providing capabilities – and then letting people run with them to some extent. Clearly there have to be some guidelines around security. Within those parameters, you put things out in the wild and see how it grows.”

Digital collaboration

Davis noted that the digital opportunites for the Francis Crick stretch from the collobaration within the building for Francis Crick staff, the physical infrastructure of the building, but most importantly the ability to get outside of the building and work with other organisations.

She asked: “What does digital mean for an organisation like ours?

“Digital is different for every company. We’re not a car manufacturer or insurance company and I have a degree of suspicion about a ‘one size fits all’ view that seems to imply that ‘digital’ should be leveraged in the same way by different industries and organisations – but I can see that there are things that are actionable in our arena.

“Our research is clearly an important part of the digital story for the Crick – we have computational scientists who are at the leading edge of developing new algorithms. But we also have a digital building. There are around 26,000 monitoring points on our building management system; it’s more complex than the Shard. And within the building we will also have a digital community.

“We are developing a wayfinding application – like having our own private Google Maps tool for the building. Initially this will be great just to help us all find our way around a very large new environment, but we also see potential for it to develop over time. For example, it could be linked to booking systems to indicate where shared research equipment is in use and allow scientists to locate the nearest similar piece of kit which is available.

“But we also want to think about how we get outside the building by developing opportunities to collaborate with other organisations. We already have announced the LinkLab partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, and we work closely with our university partners. We think in terms of the Crick Laboratory being the new building, but then there being a ‘wider Crick’ which includes our collaborations with other partners.”

Big Data and HPC

With four floors below ground and rising eight stories high, many of which can be seen from CIO UK headquarters, rising Armadillo-like from the north side of the British Library – getting into the facility and ensuring the eight tech support staff are able to navigate the facility using the wayfinding application is only just scratching the surface of the challenges facing Davis, with a myriad of other projects from the administrative to the exceptional.

“We have about 80 different IT projects running at the moment, just to get us into the building,” David explained. “As we build capabilities, we have to make sure that we think strategically and give ourselves the greatest agility to respond to the changing needs of our researchers.

“We are investing a backbone of Big Data and high-performance computing as a shared core so researchers could share common data sets internally and externally. It’s a statement of intent epitomising what we want to do at the Crick.”