GENIE – Case Study

The GENIE platform provides the basis for a ‘social intervention’ for people with long-term health problems, by engaging them with the health and social resources that are available to them in their localities and within their personal networks. After undertaking a ‘personal mapping’ exercise , which involves answering a few questions about their preferences for activities and support, users are presented with a list of people or organisations with whom they might want to connect.

Anne Rogers is Professor of Health Systems Implementation and until recently the Research Director of the NIHR CLAHRC Wessex. “A team of us started to develop this from social network related research at the University of Manchester. As a pilot platform we worked with an external provider, to underpin some social network intervention work that we had been doing there. But the initial site was quite rudimentary,” Rogers says.

“Once in Southampton, we wanted to establish it as a functioning app and online resource, and someone suggested we get in touch with John Robinson at the Southampton Research Software Group. We had heard that the RSG service was first rate, that it was one of the jewels in the crown of Southampton, so it seemed an obvious place to go,” she says.

The RSG team took over and worked on the existing site, removing redundant code and making it as secure as possible. The end product had to be scalable, interoperable, and easily maintained, while the quality of data had to be ensured as it grew.

Data has been separated into activities, venues and events, and the process of entering data has been simplified. Users can now search for local events according to when they are being held, as well as where, and find other events at the same venue.

“…The RSG team was very easy to do collaborative work with, so we could ask what they thought of different ideas. I think the fact that they’re researchers with an academic background, as well as software engineers, meant they could conceptualise what we were doing.”

Prof. Anne Rogers

Regular meetings between the sociology team and the research software engineers meant that glitches could be identified and fixed as they appeared.

“It’s an ad hoc process, a bit iterative, with lots of starting and stopping. But because they were university based, we could be confident they weren’t just going to go away, we were all there together,” she says. “I’d describe it as a collegial way of working, or of relating to people, that John has put in place. They really went above and beyond in trying to respond to our needs and work with us.”

The team of researchers in the Social Networks Health and Wellbeing research group has learned a lot through the process of working with the RSG. Rogers says.

“I understand that computing is a lot more complex than we thought before! We now understand some of the difficulties involved in doing it, and the complexity of the expertise that is needed to iron out problems. As well as the pressure that these people are under in managing multiple projects at one time,” she says.

“I came to think about the value of collaborations like this, and realised that as a university we could make much more of this way of working and perhaps reverse some of our siloed ways of working. We are using GENIE as a case study in the REF, which includes the computer science lead’s contribution.”

Prof. Anne Rogers

The team also learned the importance of budgeting for the cost of research software work, Rogers says.

“You need to think beforehand about how much these things cost. We were lucky in that we did have some funding we could use to employ people. And it would help if the university were responsive and flexible, to encourage this type of working.”

The GENIE platform continues to be upgraded in response to users and is already being used by many research groups across the UK and internationally.

Most work has been put on temporary hold due to the coronavirus crisis as the government has “put the biggest social disconnection experiment in history in place so that we crack this serious Pandemic!” says Rogers.

“But we have lots of interest, we’re just at a stage where we hope it’s going to be scaled up and rolled out and used by more health and social care providers. We’ll continue to work with the RSG group as it grows,” she says.

The lead contact for GENIE activities is Dr Ivaylo Vassilev