Building NUcore, Northwestern University’s core facility management tool

Core facility management at Northwestern had the kind of complexity only custom software could solve. Sixty research facilities across two campuses were using a patchwork of systems to track usage and manage payments. To meet their varied needs, Table XI developed NUcore to serve as a single, seamless and transparent core facility management software. By creating a flexible tool, we’ve earned more than 90 percent adoption. Now administrators can get a clear picture of each core’s utilization and staff can spend less time on accounting.

“Working with Table XI has been great. They’re very smart, they’re very nimble. They write good code. It’s been seven years and NUcore has never crashed.”

Jeff Weiss, Director for Research Analysis at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine

Turning to custom facility management software to solve a complex problem

Northwestern University’s Office for Research, Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Dean’s Office at the Feinberg School of Medicine teamed up to find a solution to research facility management. The trio approached us in 2009 with a big ask: Help us understand what’s happening at all the core facilities across the university.

Each core at Northwestern is essentially an independent research facility. As science evolves, researchers build upon work that was once cutting edge. Genomics is a great example — in a relatively short period of time, science has gone from sequencing the human genome to understanding what those sequences mean. Some of the researchers who build their reputation sequencing the human genome now run cores, where they perform gene sequencing for researchers who take that data and move the science forward. There are cores for all kinds of research and processes, and all of them have expensive equipment, trained researchers and single-use supplies that needed tracking. When we joined, core facilities management at Northwestern was happening across a patchwork of systems that took time away from researchers and gave administrators little visibility.

Northwestern University's core facilities enable all kinds of cutting-edge research.

Before coming to Table XI, Northwestern evaluated the few core facilities management solutions already on the market, and came away unconvinced there was a flexible enough option to meet their needs at a reasonable cost. They hired us to build custom core management software capable of supporting all 60 independent facilities. We spend most of 2010 collecting the requirements from Northwestern’s core facilities, and in 2011, we built the original version of what would be called NUcore.

Interested in using NUcore for your core facility management?

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Managing the conflicting and overlapping needs of multiple constituents

The top-down argument from Northwestern administrators was: I need a way to get insight into this pool of money that I'm spending. The university spends millions to subsidize the tools these core facilities use. Northwestern wanted to know where its money was being spent and recovered — and it needed to make sure the cores were maintaining nonprofit status and supporting a broad array of researchers. Yet the only information they would get from the facilities were annual reports with no operational insight into how things were used on a daily basis.

In the trenches, the researchers who manage the core facilities were spending hours doing the work of an invoice accountant. Creating a system that made tracking and billing as lightweight and automated as possible gave researchers back a ton of time — time they could spend on the research they were trained to do.

“One of the most important parts of our strategy was not to force people to use NUcore. That meant we had to build good software that met people's needs, or nobody was going to use it.”

Jeff Weiss, Director for Research Analysis at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine

Building a system that’s meant to constantly adapt

We wanted to make facilities management easier as quickly as possible, which meant launching with a version of NUcore that served only the cores with the most straightforward needs. Since NUcore went live in 2011, we’ve been consistently adding features to the product so it has all the functionality a core facility manager might need.

Much of the work involved adding additional rules and workflows so that each core could better serve their users and meet their compliance requirements. Features like split charges allowed researchers to spread payments across multiple grants or funding sources.

“If we post something critical it will get addressed immediately. I’ve posted things in the evening and I've gotten responses in the middle of the night that it was fixed. It's a very responsive group of individuals, and that's very valuable to us.”

Jeff Weiss, Director for Research Analysis at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine

The chemistry labs required a significant adaptation before they could come on board. Their instrumentation — think mass spectrometers and x-ray crystallography machines — required researchers to answer a set of questions guaranteeing their samples were safe before each use. We were able to add that workflow, extending NUcore from a lab booking system to a lab information management system, or LIM system. That further reduced the workload core facility managers had to take on, and made NUcore compliant with the chemistry facilities’ needs.

By rolling out a limited version, then adding features, we were able to start showing NUcore’s utility early, which made it easier to garner support while we extended the system to serve other cores.

Adding Internet of Things capabilities to remotely control access

We’ve been able to deliver significant security enhancements to Northwestern’s core facilities by adding Internet of Things functionality to remotely manage access. We started with basic control over some of the instrumentation in the cores. Electron microscopes are expensive and fragile, no one should be using them without the appropriate training and authorization. Using power relays, we’re able to turn the electricity on only when an authorized user logs in to use a piece of equipment. It's a lightweight security enhancement. Now people can't just walk up to these tools and use them, they need to have a reservation and the right approvals in the system.

With expensive and fragile scientific equipment, it's crucial only authorized users can gain access.

The feature we’re currently working on will deliver even greater security and control by adding physical scanners that can read IDs and check permissions before opening the doors to the university’s clean rooms. These rooms need to be kept immaculate so the research performed there doesn’t get contaminated. That means making sure no roaming undergrad wanders in. The scanners read the information on the swiped ID, then check the database to make sure the person is authorized and that they have valid payment on file. It’s like having a guard posted at the clean rooms 24/7, with the ability to automate the tracking and payment completely.

The results of better data and smoother payments

Today, 55 of the university’s 60 cores use the system, and we’re working on adding features to onboard the remaining facilities. NUcore gives Northwestern full visibility into what its core facilities are doing, allowing administrators to pull usage data at any time. It has also simplified the billing process tremendously for core facility managers. NUcore automatically confirms payment sources and keeps usage journals, saving time and making it easier to capture payment.

“The huge benefit for the core facilities is a whopping decrease in the amount of administrative overhead. Now they have one system where they can handle all of their business.

From our perspective, in minutes, you can pull complex summaries of everything that's happening in all of those core facilities. It's a huge timesaver. And we're able to manage programs far more effectively.”

Jeff Weiss, director for research analysis at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine

Maintaining the only open source facility management software

NUcore continues to grow and improve in part because of one unique feature: It’s open source. Pretty early on, the Northwestern team realized they had an opportunity to be a good research partner to the community at large by making the facility management software open source so other universities and for-profit core facilities could use NUcore.

By virtue of our relationship with Northwestern, we're the primary engineers and maintainers of NUcore. We’ve since rolled it out to Dartmouth College and University of Illinois at Chicago, adapting the project to best serve their individual needs while using the same central framework.

The upside to making it open source — besides good will — is that Northwestern benefits from any improvements the other schools make to NUcore. Companies that use the technology aren’t required to put their customizations back into the open source code, but when they can be broadly useful, they usually do. Dartmouth is putting significant work into making the software’s frontend more responsive, so it works better on mobile devices. That’s an advancement that will directly benefit everyone using NUcore. Keeping it open source allows the product to get better over time without Northwestern having to fund every improvement.

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