by Nicholas D. Evans

How digital is helping the RNLI to save lives at sea

Nov 01, 2017
CIODigital TransformationEmerging Technology

Every day of every year, people of all backgrounds get into danger in the water. Here's how the Royal National Lifeboat Institution employs “digital” to support a very important and highly-specific mission – that of saving lives at sea.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is a UK-based charity whose mission is to save lives at sea. The charity was founded back in 1824 and their lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 140,000 lives to date. You might think that digital technologies lend little value to aid in at-sea rescues, but on closer inspection it is energizing RNLI’s goal to cut lives lost due to drowning by 50% by 2024.

There are over 350 lifeboats in the RNLI fleet based at various stations around the UK and Ireland. Between them, RNLI lifeboats cover 19,000 miles of coastline and some busy inland stretches of water using all-weather lifeboats as well as inshore lifeboats and even hovercraft. The different classes of lifeboat in their fleet mean they can reach people in all kinds of situations and locations.

The RNLI has always had innovation at its core – including the development of the self-righting lifeboat, rigid inflatable boat (RIB), and the life jacket, no less – but they wanted to better exploit the organization-wide potential of IT and today’s emerging and disruptive technologies in supporting their ongoing mission.

“With courage, nothing is impossible” —Sir William Hillary, RNLI founder

To develop their go-forward digital strategy and roadmap, in early 2017, the RNLI brought in Ian Golding as interim CIO. Mr. Golding was formerly Group CIO at ERM, an environmental consultancy with over 5,200 employees in 40 countries.

According to Mr. Golding, the first step in his position as CIO was to conduct a current state assessment and to develop a future vision for RNLI that could put into place a progressive and versatile technology organization with an enterprise-wide view of their digital ecosystem. He conducted an extensive review of what was in place already, including the various signature IT programs underway, and conducted stakeholder discussions to understand program strengths and weaknesses.

One of the key changes was a new CIO Enterprise View that looked across six strategic areas to help drive innovation as well as value for money and efficiency for the organization. The six areas involved were data and analytics, engineering and capital projects, RNLI academy, digital and knowledge services, enterprise solutions, and core IT and foundations. As an example, within the data and analytics space, RNLI is exploring advances in big data and predictive analytics, as well as mobile-friendly dashboards, to help support additional real-time insights and decision making from their data.

The ideology behind the CIO Enterprise View was tied to putting technology and data at the heart of RNLI’s mission to save lives by way of a new digital lifesaving ecosystem (connecting all communities and stakeholders), built on a new digital framework (including use of social, mobile, analytics and cloud), delivered by the new RNLI digital organization that included over 100 digital, IT and technology staff to support the organization of both RNLI staff and 35,000 volunteers.

drowning chain Figure courtesy of RNLI

At the core of this enterprise view was the objective to utilize technology and capabilities to interrupt the so-called “drowning chain” where there are various key links in the chain that can lead to drowning. These can often occur when places are not safe, or people are isolated; when people cannot or do not act safely, or when people cannot look after or save themselves.

In mid-2017, a workshop was held with participation from over 20 organisations across government, academia, private sector and industry. Using a collaborative road-mapping approach, insights were gathered on what digital technologies could be leveraged by the RNLI and its partners, to save lives anywhere from three, five and ten years into the future.

The group explored emerging trends, discussed potential solutions and developed roadmaps exploring how these solutions could be attained. Coming out of the workshop, the group defined six strategic activities:

  • Become “open enterprise” (data, APIs, source, innovation)
  • Use geo-linked services to message high at-risk groups
  • Develop capability to extract meaning from complex unstructured big data to inform decision making
  • Use emerging machine learning and artificial intelligence to create meaningful, personalised and engaging stories for at-risk groups
  • Begin technology demonstrator of a “smart waterside”
  • Stimulate “smart clothing” industry for water safety leveraging the IOT

These activities employ the latest innovations in areas such as big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things to improve lifeboat fleet support, extract more value from data, and to create smarter watersides in terms of education and prevention. They now form part of the RNLI’s ten-year roadmap for continuous innovation.

Another concept the digital team worked on under Mr. Golding’s sponsorship was that of the Connected Lifeboat. For many years this topic had been explored and evaluated, but not fully realized due to a variety of security and operational concerns. To solve the security concerns and explore feasibility, the team developed an MVP in the form of a system architecture concept for the connected lifeboat and created a workbench demonstration.

They found that the Connected Lifeboat concept was actually simpler and less risky than the current “air gap” (i.e. manually connecting for transfer of data using traditional methods and devices such as wired, USB, DVD) and had the advantages of connectivity, automation, assurance and reduced crew demand. For example, with a more connected lifeboat, chart updates could be made in real-time to provide safe navigation compliance. Remote fault-finding could reduce the demand for carrying unnecessary spares and reduce travel time and cost for technicians – in much the same way that asset performance management (APM) is being applied in other industries.

Moving forwards, according to Mr. Golding, the ten-year innovation roadmap, along with the formal Technology Governance Board to help determine the right priorities and make technology decisions, will set the course for the RNLI to meet its ambitious objectives in the years ahead.

In driving this change, Mr. Golding cited clear understanding of the organizational goals; detailed understanding of the culture; collaboration and innovation to adapt current ways-of-working; and trust and transparency in defining outcomes as key aspects that CIOs need to fully leverage when defining and executing on their digital strategy.

Every day of every year, people of all backgrounds get into danger in the water. The CIO enterprise view, together with concepts of the digital lifesaving ecosystem, the digital framework, and the Connected Lifeboat are all helping RNLI employ “digital” to support a very important and highly-specific mission – that of saving lives at sea.