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Historically the healthcare industry has focused on treating the causes of ill health, rather than preventing them. Digital healthcare company Babylon’s goal is to upend this model.
“Babylon is in the business of healthcare, not sick care. Our job is to help people to stay well and we’re on a mission to provide affordable, accessible health care to everyone in the world,” explains Richard Noble, Engineering Director of Data at Babylon.
Founded in 2013, Babylon’s digital healthcare platform combines the expertise of clinical professionals with the latest artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technology, to provide access to healthcare and health information to people whenever and wherever they need it via their digital devices. It does so in partnership with private and public healthcare providers across the UK, North America, South-East Asia and Rwanda, making healthcare more accessible and affordable to 24 million patients worldwide. In the UK, for example, Babylon runs the GP at Hand service in London in partnership with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), giving free access to NHS clinicians 24/7.
Keeping pace with global growth
The speed with which Babylon has grown globally is a testament to the demand for its services; but it also created two challenges for the company. Babylon needed a technology provider that could keep up with its global growth and securely store and analyze its ever-increasing volume of sensitive data, to ensure that it always delivers the best possible care. “We work with a lot of private patient data and we must ensure that it stays private,” explains Natalie Godec, cloud engineer at Babylon. “At the same time, we must enable our teams to innovate with that data while meeting different national regulatory standards.”
Babylon previously relied on a self-hosted third-party computing cluster, but this couldn’t handle the data loads and the demands that came with Babylon’s global expansion. It was also expensive, both in terms of compute, and in the engineering time required to maintain it. So Babylon began looking for a new technology provider to help it to optimize the capabilities of AI and grow fast. “We are not in the business of building a platform, we knew we could go further faster if we brought in an external supplier instead of building everything in-house,” says Noble. “We chose Google Cloud because we knew it could scale with us and support us with our data science and analysis and we could build the tools we needed with it quickly. It offers the solutions that enable us to focus on our core business, access to health.”
The team’s strategy is to remain cloud-agnostic, making sure a platform is never a barrier to access. Babylon still has some on-premise infrastructure. It uses a separate cloud solution for its microservices and runtime obligations, and there are some territories where a different solution is required, for example, in Rwanda where there is no cloud presence. So, the fact that Google Cloud fit neatly into Babylon’s hybrid-cloud infrastructure was another added bonus.
Migrating in under a year
Noble was surprised at how fast Babylon was able to migrate its systems to Google Cloud. “It was an expedited process,” he says. “We designed, built, figured out how to handle data sovereignty and data access and migrated our entire setup in under a year, with the support of our fantastic team and Google Cloud.”
To ensure that Babylon gets the best of everything Google Cloud has to offer in the most cost-effective manner possible, Babylon brought in Google Cloud Partner Netpremecy. "It's a privilege to work with such an innovative company that is changing healthcare for the better," says Ben Trood, Head of Business Development at Netpremacy. "The direct impact Babylon Health has on people's lives is inspiring - we're happy to work alongside them to support their end-user technology, so their team can focus on making change happen."
Encouraged by its support team within Google Cloud and Netpremecy, Babylon’s Google Cloud architecture uses twenty-plus Google Cloud solutions, all of which Godec finds pretty intuitive to use. She says: “We found that the services within Google Cloud are simple to figure out and integrate easily with our systems, which made our lives a lot easier in terms of piecing together different services that we needed. We don’t have to think, will this API work with that API or how do we do permissions, for example. And I often hear our data engineers commenting on how easy BigQuery and Cloud Storage are to use for doing data transformations and analytics.”
Building in the cloud also makes it easy to expand as the company expands. Before moving to Google Cloud, the team processed 1 TB of event data per week. Today, the pipelines are running 27 times faster, processing on average 190 TB of data daily. “It’s a relief to build without being concerned about infrastructure scalability or availability,” Godec says. “We have more time to focus on serving customers instead of worrying about how much data we’re processing.”
Babylon works closely with Google Cloud to grow its services and innovate too. “A lot of what we do is pushing the boundaries in the industry,” says Godec. “We work with Google Cloud to influence product roadmaps. It’s great that we can talk to our engineers at Google Cloud and say here's our challenge. We need this solution. And they come back a few months later, and the solution has been built.”
Using Google Cloud solutions has improved staff collaboration within the engineering team too, Godec adds. “When Babylon started building the data platform, there was a significant gap in language between platform engineers and data engineers. We could not understand each other. Yet the engineers bridged that gap by collaborating through BigQuery and Cloud Storage. It’s really helped them to innovate and push boundaries together.
“We reached a point where our data engineers and analysts are skilled enough in cloud engineering to do the majority of the things they need themselves, which alleviated a lot of the workload from the platform teams,” she says.
Securing and optimizing patient data
Babylon has always stored its patients securely, but the move to Google Cloud enabled it to better analyze its data using AI allowing it to unlock new tools and features helping clinicians and members alike. Note Assistant is one such tool that generates clinical notes during a consultation.
That’s what BigQuery in conjunction with Cloud Storage enables, creating what Noble terms an event-driven data mesh. “The move to Google Cloud provided us with a data sovereignty layer, a security layer, and, crucially, it’s helped us gain a better understanding than we had before of what our data actually means, moving ever closer to one canonical view of what we're seeing,” says Noble.
To always do what is best for its users, Babylon is committed to ensuring that every piece of data it holds is protected and can be used securely in multiple use-cases only by those authorized to view it. Godec says this has now been achieved: “We can now use our data at a project level versus a dataset level or we can authorize an applied scientist to see a particular view of a dataset, for example.” The result is more than 100 data sources resulting in access to 80 billion data points. “We're piecing together different data sources to create a comprehensive understanding of our members’ health,” Godec adds. “We leverage the fact that we can store data confidently in different regions.”
Healthcare data is highly regulated and to make it even more challenging, the regulations vary depending on geography. That’s why the company combines VPC Service Controls and Cloud Identity and Access Management to create two levels of protection. The first uses virtual private cloud service controls to create a flexible, multi-layered secure environment, the second uses identity and access controls.
That makes it more secure, and easier to control access on a granular level. The company logs all activity as part of an audit trail, but it still needed a way to assign access to certain data based on business area. “It was really complicated, especially to automate access,” Godec says. “But we found a way to set up the auditing at the top level of the organization and include all of the resources that are being created under that umbrella and have it in TerraForm and set up automatically for every project.”
Using AI to remove healthcare barriers
With data security firmly in place, Babylon was ready to use BigQuery data and accelerate teams’ capacity to use AI to rapidly scale and develop new models that make its healthcare better for its patients and caregivers. That capacity is important, especially when healthcare needs change rapidly, as with the COVID-19 pandemic. For the company to meet changing needs, it must be agile enough to respond quickly. Initially, building a new data model and giving access to users took six months, now it takes under a week.
Babylon is dedicated to making sure its AI is inclusive so it supports the company’s mission to make high-quality healthcare accessible. That’s why it uses solutions such as the Translation API to deliver care in a patient’s native language, which is widely used to provide Babylon’s in-app interactive experience in south-east Asia. “Google Cloud makes it easy to meet patients’ needs as we expand to new countries,” Noble says. “Especially because Google Cloud doesn’t lock you into the platform. Though it's so convenient that you don't want to move off!”
Babylon’s next big challenge is to provide the same level of care in each of the different populations that it serves, Noble says: “Consider places such as Rwanda, where we can't expect everyone to have a smartphone. That’s why we’re looking at options like text message support, so more people can access the healthcare services they need.”
Since it launched in 2013, Babylon has come a long way geographically and in terms of the services it offers. And, it is continuing to push the boundaries of technology to allow it to continue on its mission to make high-quality healthcare accessible and affordable for everyone on earth. Whether it’s helping patients in remote areas of the world to access its services, or helping Babylon to better understand its users’ needs, Google Cloud continues to support Babylon on that journey.
“Google Cloud is a significant part of why we’ve been able to move and innovate so quickly,” Noble concludes. “We consider Google a partner and will continue to work closely going forward. After all, we haven't had a problem that Google couldn’t solve yet.”