rnli lifeboat
Image: RNLI

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) has saved more than 142,200 lives at sea since the charity was founded in 1824. To thrive in the future it has put its faith in the power of digital.

Around 190 people die at the UK and Irish coasts each year, and the RNLI believes that data and technology will be key to its reaching its goal of a 50% reduction in drowning by 2024.

In January 2017, the RNLI appointed Ian Golding as its interim CIO, and tasked him with creating a vision of how technology and data can make a more efficient rescue service and ultimately prevent drowning.

"An interim CIO can really help where an organisation is evolving and the traditional IT function is in need of evolution," Golding told CIO UK.

"An interim can come in and redefine and remodel how the technology of the organisation could be in readiness for a new CIO to take over."

He left the charity in October with a digital and IT strategy for his successor to put into practice. Golding hopes the approach will create a new 'RNLI Digital Brain' that provides relevant, flexible and innovative assistance to make empowered decisions, and deliver the most effective training and rescue strategies.

This digital brain will encompass maritime technologies, training programmes at the RNLI Academy, and predictive analytics from data sources including historic drowning information, lifeboat telemetry and weather conditions.

Identifying digital needs and solutions

The RNLI had never had a CIO or IT director before Golding joined. A number of directors shared responsibility for the IT setup, which functioned well but lacked a joined-up digital ecosystem.

"It was a very traditional IT infrastructure, but there was a lot of awareness of the importance of digital," says Golding.

"More than anything, there was a realisation that all of this had to come together. My job was to bring it all together in a new technology vision for the RNLI."

The RNLI consists of an active fleet of 349 lifeboats and 238 lifeboat stations, a flood rescue team of 250 volunteers, lifeguards who patrol over 240 beaches and a large public supporter base. The result is an organisation with complicated needs and skills.

"It was very positive that the RNLI allowed me to function in an executive role to understand how technology worked across the organisation and to find the surprising synergies," he says.

"We had some really deep expert data science analytics capabilities in the organisation and through various events realised that this would be much more effective if it were implemented organisation-wide."

In July 2017, Golding sponsored an event in Trinity House that brought together tech talent from government, academia and various private sectors. They followed a targeted innovation road-mapping approach to gather insights about what digital technologies could be used to save lives along three-year, five-year and 10-year timeframes.

"From that, we were able to match the emerging trends and solutions into a number of different areas that could be applied to help break the drowning chain," says Golding.

"In many cases, helping people to understand how to not get themselves into an unsafe situation in the first place is obviously vastly more preferable than getting people out of the order when they're already in trouble."

The 'drowning chain' Golding refers to is a model used by the RNLI to outline the conditions that can lead to dangers at sea. Every link in the chain is an interlocking risk, from lack of education about dangers at sea through to struggling to cope due to being a weak swimmer.

Graph of the 'drowning chain'

Golding says that using data is a key way to break the drowning chain, by moving the RNLI strategy from reactive to preventative.

Other innovations that could bring major value include smart clothing with embedded warning devices, the gamification of training, predictive maintenance of lifeboats, smart watersides providing surveillance through IoT devices, and connected lifeboats that could transmit data from the sea to the shore.

Opening up the RNLI

Another key aspect of the strategy is becoming a more open enterprise, by sharing data, APIs and ideas with third parties. The recent collaboration with viral content company LADbible on the "Respect The Water" documentary series provided a model for how this could work.

The films tell the tragic stories of young men who have drowned at sea and provide advice on how to reduce the risks. They have since been viewed more than 4.2 million times on LADbible's Facebook newsfeed.

LADbible and the RNLI made a natural fit for the campaign. Males account for over two-thirds of those who drown, and young men are the most likely of all people to take risks at sea.

This approach could be strengthened by using location data to send out targeted messaging. For example, the RNLI could use the National Water Safety Board's incident database to understand when someone is in a situation of high risk. They could use then use bots to provide targeted messages on social media about the dangers.

"Personalised messaging would complement it very well," says Golding. "Geo push technology would allow tailored messages and dialogue at a scale that would not be possible with traditional non-digital methods of communications."

Handing over the reins

Golding finished his interim role at the end of October, and Claire Deuchar, the charity's Supply Chain Director, will become the CIO on a permanent basis and bring the digital plan to life.

Golding admits that the interim role can leave a bittersweet filling when the tenure draws to a close, but adds that the variety of the work makes the job attractive.

Organisations that take on an interim CIO can gain a fresh look at how their programmes are being run and benefit from the professional experiences of the individual they appoint.

Golding previously filled the roles of Chief Technical Officer, Chief Information Officer and Data Privacy Officer at ERM Group, and also has extensive experience in IT consultant and manager roles.

He has also mentored and invested in a number of startups, work which he says has helped him as a CIO at established enterprises.

"It's applying the quick-thinking mindset, ensuring rapid progress, and the very careful use of funding to ensure great value for money," the classically-trained musician says. "These can also be applied to larger scale businesses and the culture of innovation that is increasingly vital in organisations large and small.

"In an interim role, you're forced to understand an organisation quite quickly. But that same way of working could and arguably should apply to a permanent CIO role, due to the rapidly evolving world of technology we live in."