Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention. While this is true, it has become clear over recent weeks that the shared concern around the COVID-19 virus has motivated and inspired people and organisations to find new ways of helping each other through the deployment of specialist skills and services.
There are many examples of how companies have changed direction or at least repurposed a product or service to help combat the virus. ZOE, creators of an innovative food tracker tool, redeveloped the application for use as a symptom tracker. Dyson and Gtech have shifted production lines to manufacture ventilators, and even Argyll based Midton Acrylics have retooled to meet the demand for protective face masks.
It was with this spirit of 'vital product pivot' in mind that a prototype Chess designed and built for use in the construction sector was repurposed to help hospitals across England streamline and simplify services during a time where resources and capacity are strained to their absolute limit.
In 2018 the Paisley based digital division of Chess decided to focus a strand of development on addressing the digital challenges that occur when attempting to generate business insight through the simplification and combination of complex data sets. Across several sectors, issues are caused by multiple stakeholders using incompatible systems and file formats, resulting in the need for time-consuming, expensive and often error-prone manual entry. To understand the problem and opportunity in detail, we designed and facilitated workshops with end-users and stakeholders, including several with the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC). The potential and value of a simple, affordable online service that could be used to merge data and generate insight without losing value became apparent.
With grant funding support from Scottish Enterprise, the next few weeks were spent developing a prototype which could be used by Housing Associations to conduct stock condition surveys. Because of its function as a language translator, and because rather predictably as software developers we read a lot of sci-fi, the service was bestowed the working title of Babelfish. During the subsequent evaluation undertaken by a Housing Association identified through CSIC, the system was used to survey over 400 properties, and the feedback from users was overwhelmingly positive.
Functionality allowing the creation of bespoke surveys proved to be key in the repurposing of Babelfish into a vital healthcare context. On the 15th of March this year, when the critical nature of COVID-19 was crystallising, Chess were approached by a Consultant respiratory paediatrician at Alder Hey Children's hospital who, in anticipation of the impending pressure on the NHS, enquired as to whether or not we knew of a system that would support the capturing and maintenance of patient information.
A repurposed Babelfish was the obvious candidate. The next few weeks were spent making the necessary modifications, which included the development of new questions sets, removing any housing-related elements and working closely with cybersecurity colleagues from Chess on shifting from prototype to production.
Within a week the application was redeployed, tested and made available to the NHS. At the time of writing, Babelfish has been used by NHS staff to monitor the status of children across 227 NHS Foundation Trusts from Liverpool to London, has 214 users and generated 533 responses.
The extent to which the whole of Chess mobilised around the opportunity to meet a critical need was impressive, as was the speed with which a solution was realised and made available.
Moving forward, the market-ready version of the service for use in the health and care sector will be named the Healthcare Insight Tool (HiT). If HiT can, even in a small way, ease the burden on the NHS during these unprecedented times, then that is to be valued as a meaningful and important outcome.