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In 2020, with the world’s science community working hard to find solutions to the global pandemic, MIT published research that claimed artificial intelligence could be used to detect people who are asymptomatic for Covid-19 through audio recordings of people’s voice sounds.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), an executive agency part of the Department of Health and Social Care, was asked to run a feasibility study to explore this research, in an effort to improve how Covid-19 could be detected in the UK. An early alpha application was built to help prove the concept and support a pilot phase. After a successful pilot, this needed to move into a beta application, with accessibility, security, and data privacy considered to be essential elements.

Following a G-Cloud procurement exercise, Studio 24 was appointed to develop the beta application. Thanks to the testing of the alpha application, UKHSA had a clear idea of what the beta application had to do.

A robust, accessible, secure, professional web application needed to be developed within a challenging 5-week timeline.

Project goals

The key project goals were:

  • Collect 40,000+ data points by March 2022
  • Launch a robust beta web application to collect data from users
  • Ensure the application meets accessibility regulations (WCAG AA-level)
  • Protect the data of participants with rigorous cyber security measures
  • Design the site with NHS Test and Trace branding, to reassure users it is a genuine UKHSA study
  • Support a range of studies with custom questions to aid data collection and analysis
  • Build the beta application within a challenging 5-week timeline
  • Ensure uptime of 99.99% SLA
The website homepage shown on a desktop and a mobile.

Working to a tight timeline

The alpha application provided a clear prototype to work from. The client created wireframes and supplied all of the site content at the start, which really helped communicate their needs. In a short sales phase we defined the project, recommended usability improvements, and had a clear project plan to move forward with.

The five-week timeline required us to work very closely together, both as a team and with the client. In order to meet the short timeframe, the team worked together in 3 short sprints to work on user experience design, front-end build, PHP web application development, and cloud hosting infrastructure.

On the front-end design side we used the NHS Design System and created static HTML prototypes to confirm the look and feel of the web app. By using a design system we were able to rapidly build high-quality front-end code which helped make the short project timeframe a success.

We used Laravel, a popular and powerful PHP web framework, to rapidly build the web application. We used our expertise from previous survey projects to help build a flexible questionnaire system. This work supported multiple studies so we could easily and quickly customise questions as new requirements came in. An API was also built to enable researchers to download submitted data.

We had daily stand-ups with the client which was vital for flagging any questions and addressing any issues rapidly, and we documented our work as we went along, which was helpful both for the client and our team.

From the Studio 24 team perspective, it was a very positive experience. This 5-week period where the team could collaborate with focussed energy was very refreshing after months of remote working.

The Studio 24 team and the UKHSA were delighted that all the project goals were met and the website was delivered on time and within budget.

As the Project Manager, it was wonderful to see our team, the client, and our testing partner all pulling together to make this website happen in such a short timeframe. It was great to work on a project that is so relevant and has the potential to make a real difference in people’s lives.

Claire McDermott
Claire McDermott, Studio 24

Making the website accessible for all

Accessibility was a key requirement for success. The UKHSA is looking for 40,000+ participants for the study and so everyone should be able to access the site no matter what device they use, how old their browser is, or whether they have a disability such as visual impairment.

Accessibility is at the heart of all Studio 24 projects and so we were very confident about fulfilling this requirement. Using the NHS Design System also helped, since this is designed to meet accessibility needs.

To help validate this, we worked with our testing partner Zoonou, who undertook functional device testing, load testing, security penetration test, and accessibility testing. We have worked with Zoonou on a number of projects and our experience with them is very smooth – they are like an extension of the Studio 24 team.

On the first accessibility test, there were a handful of minor issues. When the site was re-tested there were zero issues with accessibility. This is a testament to the high-quality HTML & CSS from our front-end developer, Nicola Saunders.

I believe that developers have a responsibility to write code that doesn’t exclude people. Given the importance of this website in the battle against Covid, I’m very pleased to have ensured there are no barriers for people who want to join the study.

Nicola Saunders
Nicola Saunders, Studio 24
Screen from the website where users are asked to confirm their symptoms from list.
Screen from the website where users are given instructions on how to record a cough.

Protecting personal data

When collecting and storing personal data it is crucial that the data is secure and protected. This is true for any website that handles personal data, but additional care needed to be taken on this project due to the nature of the data being collected.

Participants using the application submit audio files, along with a written record of symptoms that they are experiencing. To ensure this information is protected all data is encrypted before it is stored in a database (or file system) and then stored with encryption-at-rest within the AWS cloud infrastructure. Uploaded audio files also received this encryption treatment.

Secure access to the submitted data via multiple layers of authentication ensures the client and the study participants can be confident that their data is secure at every step of the process.

We also built GDPR compliance into the application, ensuring the client had tools to query individual data and delete this on request. As a matter of course all processed data is deleted within 30 days to ensure data is not kept any longer than necessary.

Mobile phone with a page from the website asking 'are you wearing a mask right now?'

The results

We smashed the target of 40,000 user submissions — with a 62% increase.