Wellcome develops a data-first mindset to better allocate £5bn research funding with Tableau


Data-driven project selection enables more targeted innovation
Better understanding of research improves funding effectiveness
New “data-first” culture focuses on collaboration, innovation and trust

Wellcome is a London-based politically and financially independent foundation. Established in 1936, the Foundation supports research projects and initiatives to promote human health. All Wellcome’s work is funded from an investment portfolio that currently stands at £26.8 billion. In the next five years, Wellcome plans to spend around £5 billion helping people around the world explore great ideas.

The Foundation is creating a thriving data culture. For example, grant portfolio managers recognise the value of data as a strategic asset, using it to help allocate funds to the right projects at the right time. Wellcome is also encouraging stronger data skills amongst staff in order to better understand what projects they are currently funding, and predict future funding.

Using Tableau, they can just self-serve. At any time during the month, they can keep an eye on the data, drill into any anomalies, and discover new insights. That wasn’t possible before.

Self-service analytics accelerates speed to insight and makes data more rewarding

A key area of responsibly at Wellcome is the allocation of funds for research and innovation development in the health sector. The Foundation’s portfolio managers aim to invest approximately £1 billion annually in selected projects.

The Foundation’s Grant Tracker application is at the heart of grant management. It enables the processing of applications, the management of ongoing projects and everything in between. Data engineers in Wellcome Data Labs use Alteryx to bring diverse data into a data warehouse and combine it with information from other sources, such as associated publications or details about researchers. Publicly accessible data, including policy data from the World Health Organisation, is scraped and searched for Wellcome mentions, using pattern recognition and Machine Learning.

According to Natalie Leach, Senior Tableau Analyst at Wellcome, the Grant Tracker is popular with employees – but one important challenge is the inability to see the bigger picture. “People can use the Grant Tracker to process applications, view different grants. However, it doesn’t provide a clear, aggregated view of the research portfolio – the status of individual research programs and their performance. That’s what was really missing before we introduced Tableau and our data warehouse,” she says.

In 2017 Wellcome began a journey to modernise its analytics capabilities. It built a new data warehouse, engineered for self-service analytics. It standardised on Tableau Server as the analysis layer of its data warehouse, with approximately 200 employees regularly accessing the system. “Time and again, people come up to me and say they are seeing insights that were not there before. This has been really, really useful for people.”

The way people use data is changing too - it’s smarter, faster and significantly more rewarding.

Natalie explains, “At the end of every month, one of the data analysts in the grants team would run these SQL queries, and then send out emails to people. That absorbed so much of everyone’s time. Using Tableau, the grants team can now just self-serve. At any time during the month, they can keep an eye on the data, drill into any anomalies, and discover new insights. That wasn’t possible before.”

Our portfolio managers in Innovations, for example, can see all the grants attributable to a disease and how the research is progressing. They can make informed judgements on how to move the project forward and understand more about the status of things like clinical trials. None of this was visible before. Now, the team simply open up a dashboard and the insights are there.

Data-driven project selection leads to targeted innovation

The Foundation’s portfolio managers traditionally managed their individual funding projects, engaging regularly with researchers. However, key insights were often missing. Managers often lacked a holistic view of how much money was spent on which funding area and there was often difficultly understanding which projects were successful. Wellcome doesn’t judge success on financial return on investment, but on the positive impact on human health – which can be difficult to measure.

The problem was particularly acute in the area of innovation - where researchers were being funded to develop potentially life-changing products, such as vaccines or prostheses. To support a new strategy for their Innovations division, Wellcome needed to do a deeper analysis of the projects in order to understand which ones were most likely to generate a positive outcome.

As an example, Natalie points to the work done on the serious tropical disease Leishmaniasis to highlight the value Tableau is bringing to portfolio managers.

“Tableau is transforming the way Wellcome analyses projects treating diseases like Leishmaniasis,” she says. “Our portfolio managers in Innovations can see all the grants attributable to the disease and how the research is progressing. They can make informed judgements on how to move the project forward and understand more about the status of things like clinical trials. None of this was visible before. Now, the team can simply open up a dashboard and the insights are there.”

Transparency is something that we’re always talking about at Wellcome. Not just in terms of data, but just in terms of the way that we function. Tableau is definitely feeding into that, and will do more in the future.

Data transparency allows better understanding of project impact

Wellcome is also using the data-driven insights to understand how the Foundation itself is performing. The Insight & Analysis team assesses the impact of Wellcome funded projects by a variety of measures and strategic objectives, to find ways to increase Wellcome’s impact and inform future strategy. “The team are now able to assess in which areas of human health Wellcome is having most impact,” says Natalie.

Transparency is of course important to Wellcome. One of the most important steps toward that transparency is empowering people to understand what data is available, where it is located – and then making that data visual and accessible.

Natalie explains: “Transparency is something that we’re always talking about at Wellcome. Not just in terms of data, but just in terms of the way that we function. Tableau is definitely feeding into that, and will do more in the future. We’re working on a project at the moment to put dashboards on our website so that anyone from the public can come and interrogate the data themselves.”