Behind the Scenes at TestEd

David Perry and David Buchanan share how they create IT solutions to support both the participants of TestEd and the researchers: March 2022

You both work on the IT for TestEd, what are the similarities and differences between your roles?

David Buchanan and I have worked together for over 20 years now. Our specialism is in the use of IT to underpin and support clinical research. We have been very fortunate to be involved in so many clinical research projects with the endorsement to innovate and implement our solutions. In the past we have worked with both the Neurosciences Trials Unit and Edinburgh Clinical Trials Unit within the University.

David is an expert software developer and takes the lead in this area. I undertake the IT infrastructure, service availability, and database management roles.

We work closely together to build a coherent solution that will safely and securely collect the data that will help answer the original research question. We often draw on our shared experience to design new solutions. The solution needs to meet the needs of both the researchers and the participants.


What’s the process for getting details from the samples people give, to your reporting of the results, like the weekly details we see on the TestEd webpage?

It all starts with a “beep” when a participant scans their personal barcode and registers and new saliva sample at one of our Kiosks. This notifies us and the database that we have a sample requiring testing and reporting. A small army of support staff and scientific geniuses then co-ordinate the physical collection of samples and schedule their testing within the scientific research labs at IGC. They have honed this process to completion within ~24 hours.

David Buchanan has developed a small Lab Information Management System (LIMS) to help the lab team manage samples. From these processes, we learn the results of the COVID-19 PCR test. The system then sends email and text messages to the participant to inform them that their results are available on their personal dashboard.

In the background, the data is being collated and presented to the project team through a series of data dashboards that shows the progress of the project and other key KPI’s such as samples provided per site per participant type.


What have been the IT challenges for the TestEd programme?

The IT challenges are the fun part; the unknown; the possibly impossible; the chance to innovate.

We have the luxury of experience and the ability to re-use what has worked before. This helps reduce the time it takes to create the core functionality of any system and affords us the time to focus on the challenges and areas requiring innovation.

TestEd presented us with the need to design and produce the Kiosk PCs. These needed to comply with UoE computer regulations and be COVID safe. We worked closely with the IGC Research Computing Support Team and IS Desktop Services to create the kiosks to comply with UoE standards. We also took inspiration from self-service checkouts at supermarkets where the need to physically touch anything can be minimised. We use barcodes to identify participants and samples as opposed to food items!

David’s bespoke LIMS system has also been a great success. This has helped the operational side of the project but also helps align the research lab at IGC to become an accredited lab for performing such testing services in the future.

Time will always be the biggest challenge. We have been very fortunate to have been supported in many ways by the IT professionals across the University. The help and support we have received has been amazing and we certainly could not have achieved what we have without them.


In general, what do you think is important about your work in relation to the TestEd programme?

TestEd is a very interesting research project. It is conducted directly with the participant, there are no medical professionals involved in between.

It has provided a way for Staff and Students to feel safer about returning to the workplace and sustaining that presence. It’s humbling to have done something to help people return to a greater sense of normality during the pandemic.

Technically it has been important to provide an IT solution that is robust and available, safe and secure. We need to ensure that Staff and Students have a good experience when taking part in our project. Many of their interactions with the project are through the IT systems we have created.


More specifically, what do you see is the relationship between your work and the social research happening on TestEd?

David and I have an eye on the TestEd data every day. Like other members of the team, we watch the management dashboards for progress. We work closely with the social research team to help them with their data access and analysis needs. David has developed online data dictionaries for the database to simplify this process.

As patterns emerge in the data, I often speculate what might be the cause. I’ve watched enough Hans Rosling TED talks to know that an educated guess may be more wrong than right! Many of the trends are inevitably rooted in human behaviour, I’m excited to see what the social research team discovers.


Lastly, what do you enjoy most about your roles?

Academic research is often about chasing opportunities, its competitive, and often difficult to achieve. Being part of the team that makes good things happen is the best part of the work.