Doctors in the cloud

The Royal Flying Doctor Service is showing Australia’s businesses how creatively using data can improve marketing and cut costs.

One of the problems with technology trends is finding the real life applications to the buzzwords thrown around by industry vendors. The ‘Internet of Things’ and ‘Big Data’ are two good examples that illustrate the point. Both are used a lot but case studies of real life successes often fall back to a handful of known and overused examples.

So hearing about the Royal Flying Doctor Service’s foray into the IoT at the recent Splunk data analytics conference in Las Vegas was a refreshing change.

Lost in the outback

The challenges facing the Royal Flying Doctor Service are immense with the organisation running Australia’s fourth biggest aircraft fleet to provide medical services to most of the continent. Last year its 63 aircraft flew over 26 million kilometres.

Keeping track of those aircraft and maintaining the integrity of perishable medicines are two of the tasks facing Adam Ind, the IT manager for the Royal Flying Doctor Service’s Central Operations.

Based out of Adelaide, Ind’s brief covers remote communities - indigenous groups and isolated mines- dotted across the 2.4 million square kilometres of South Australia and the Northern Territory.

Protecting the cold chain

A key concern in covering such a large region with its variations in climate is keeping temperature sensitive medical supplies safely, “we deal with some pretty extreme temperatures where we fly, from sub zero at thirty thousand feet to more than 120 degrees so we have to be extra careful in maintaining the cold chain to protect sensitive medicines.” Ind told Business Spectator.

To protect those medicines in the past the RFDS had large data loggers to monitor temperatures, however, these didn’t do much to warn crews of impending problems or store historical data for auditing purposes.

Ind and his team shopped around for newer technologies that would give both physical and wireless warnings if the medical cold chain was at risk of being broken and medicines spoiled. The new devices warn both the crew and headquarter if there’s a problem.

“The good thing is the devices have a screen on them so when the crew come to take the meds out of the bags at the destination they get a flashing alert if the cold chain has been breached plus as soon as there’s connectivity that will be logged and tracked in our central system as well.”

Keeping track of aircraft

The other major challenge for Ind was tracking an aircraft across the vast distances, “we had good systems for planning our flights and keeping track of the tasks we need to perform and a good database set up to record our history  but not a lot of real time recording of where our aircraft actually were that was accessible to staff.”

“At one point we were using our own satellite tracking device in every aircraft which phoned home over a satellite connection every six seconds.”

The organisation moved over to an app called Flight Explorer that aggregates data from air traffic control and other sources to provide a information stream which they could then analyse. “We were able to generate reports on where aircraft were in real time,” says Ind.

Using those reports allows Ind to create an airport style information board showing the estimated arrival and departure times of each aircraft along with real time maps of where aircraft are which enabled support staff to plan more efficient schedules.

The benefits for management is a quick visualisation of operation’s status, “they really like the instant visual, the new facility we’re building at Adelaide Airport is going to be very much geared up so key operational data will be on big screens.”

Marketing the data

Shortly after implementing the real time tracking Ind was approached by the RFDS marketing team to implement its Buy The Sky fundraising project that lets supporters ‘sponsor’ a slice of airspace. In return the sponsor gets a notification by SMS or social media when a Flying Doctor aircraft travels through the area. “We were able to create a report on the activity of each patch on a weekly basis and pass this data onto the digital platform we were using,”

Towards the future, Ind is looking at how to use avionics data to improve aircraft maintenance, fleet utilisation and benchmarking contractor performance. In the longer term, the next generation of connected medical devices hold great promise once privacy and connectivity issues are resolved.

“We are fitting new hardware that will let us download data via an iPad that has the potential for us to save this data on our network whether we’re onsite or at a remote airstrip. Our engineers can then interrogate data immediately if there’s a potential issue that needs to be investigated.”

There’s also the opportunity to eliminate paper reports, “we’re looking at how we change our manual reports, both on the medical and aviation side,” says Ind. “A logical evolution will include data that we gather from our medical devices.”

Ind’s story at the Royal Flying Doctor Service is instructive on how organisations are using smart devices, data streams and analytics to improve operations and even their marketing. In the private sector, the competitive advantages for early adopters could give them an unbeatable position in the marketplace.

Paul Wallbank travelled to Las Vegas as a guest of Splunk.