Research Database

The Research Database (RD) is a web-based interface to all of the projects funded by one of the UK’s biggest Government Departments, the Department for Transport (DfT).The Research Database (RD) is a web-based interface to all of the projects funded by one of the UK’s biggest Government Departments, the Department for Transport (DfT).

The Research Database (RD) is a web-based interface to all of the projects funded by one of the UK’s biggest Government Departments, the Department for Transport (DfT). It was originally developed (as the Research Management Database) for use by both DfT and the Department for Communities and Local Government – a project which involved integrating the databases with each Department’s corporate directory system, migration of a number of existing databases that had been used to track projects and the implementation of public website versions of the data to comply with departmental Freedom of Information requirements.

Over the years the Research Database has undergone a number of adjustments to accommodate changes within the management of projects within each Department, and changes to IT infrastructure.

Most recently, the Department for Transport version of the database was updated with a new look and a much more streamlined user interface, with information available at-a-glance. The intention was to encourage greater use of the system by project managers and to promote wider knowledge of the projects funded by DfT within the Department. To that end, the system was also rebranded Research Finder.

Streamlining the interface

The original version of the database used a number of separate forms on multiple pages to step through the different stages of a project. It made it easy to focus on the details of a particular stage, but harder to get an overall view of the project or to move between different stages to input data. To overcome this latter issue, the DfT rebrand replaced the multiple pages with an expanding one-page form. Now it is easy to see the overall status of a project, and to move between the various stages easily, but it is still possible to focus in on the detail when required.

Research Finder - project form

It is easy to get an overview of a project from the one page form…

Research Finder - project description detail

… but also to dig down into the details of a particular project when inputting new data

Analysis at a glance

As well as providing an improved project interface, the update to the Research Database has new at-a-glance administration tools – specifically relating to the status of individual projects within a programme (group of projects).

Research Finder - administration overview

Programme managers can easily see the status of the projects they are responsible for, and dig down into that data to follow up on overdue projects, for example

This at-a-glance approach has also been adopted for individual projects whenever they are displayed within the system, so that it is easy to see what the project is about, and the dates and costs associated with it.

Research Finder - project at-a-glance

Projects are always displayed with all of the pertinent information available at-a-glance

Promoting projects

When the Research Database was first conceived, little thought was put in to promoting it to the wider community within the Department. It was designed primarily as a tool for project and programme managers, so that they could get oversight on their own projects; and for the research management team to pull out the statistics they needed. However, as more information was added to the system it became clear that it might have a more general audience, and that it could be used as a tool to encourage cooperation and the sharing of information within the Department. Therefore one aspect of the rebrand focussed on the front-end presentation of the system – with a new more visually striking homepage that highlighted some of the projects currently being funded by the Department.

The redesigned Research Database homepage is visually more striking and highlights some of the projects funded by the Department.

The redesigned Research Database homepage is visually more striking and highlights some of the projects funded by the Department.

To promote cooperation and a better understanding of the types of projects being undertaken by the Department the new homepage (and system in general) emphasises the themes and subjects associated with each project; and makes it easy to quickly display all projects associated with a given theme or subject.

Research Finder - themes and subjects

Themes and subjects allow users to view associated projects easily

Searching the data

To justify the new name of Research Finder, a lot of work was also done on improving the search for the database. Previously there had been a number of distinct search tools that allowed quite sophisticated analysis, but which were difficult to use; as well as a more general search tool that merely passed the search parameters to a SQL database query, but which was limited and didn’t always return all of the appropriate results. So the new RD search tool uses a dedicated search engine – the open source Sphinx (http://sphinxsearch.com) – and a number of complex indexes to facilitate searching across the different programmes and projects. Search results return relevant themes and subjects; and allow filtering on programmes and other criteria (such as cost), all within the same search interface.

Research Finder - search results

Searches can be carried out across all programmes and projects and filters and additional criteria can be applied to narrow the results

Technical details

The Research Database is hosted on a Windows Server running IIS and PHP. The database is stored in SQL Server. The web interface makes extensive use of javascript.

Note on data shown

The project data shown in all of the screenshots in this article has been generated and does not reflect any real projects or costs