Information technology (IT) has become important for day-to-day lab animal operations. It is now com- monplace for institutional animal
care and use committees (IACUCs) to
manage research animal protocols with
protocol management software. Animal
facilities also use software to organize
their processes, and barcode or radio
frequency identification (RFID) scanners to take cage census.
The Office of Animal Resources (OAR)
at Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts
and Sciences (FAS) is no exception.
This article will present OAR's
experiences with two commercial IT
platforms—vivarium management software (VMS) and a RFID census system.
The implementations were fraught with
challenges but creative countermeasures,
followed by adoption of a revolutionary
piece of hardware—the smart phone—
led to the current focus within the
department—Do-It-Yourself (DIY) tools
for vivarium operations.
EXPLORING ELECTRONIC OPTIONS
Since its newest facility opened in 2006,
OAR had pondered the problem of how
to accurately and efficiently collect
appropriate per diem revenues. Census
was taken by counting cages by hand
once per week, but this created a loophole that could result in revenue loss.
OAR’s fear was that researchers could
wait until after census to purchase new
animals and then reduce cage count
(through consolidation or euthanasia)
before the next week’s census.
In March 2010, the decision was
made to purchase a RFID census
system. With RFID, census would
be faster, more accurate, and more
The DIY App Revolution
IT Solutions to Help Animal Facilities Go Paperless
Ethan Hildebrand, LATg
frequent—researchers suspected of
gaming the system would be foiled and
OAR would collect the missing revenue
that it was due.
Nearly simultaneously, the FAS
IACUC was shopping for a computerized protocol management system
to increase the efficiency of protocol
review. Such a system would also provide the reference data required to run
the new OAR RFID census system.
In November 2010, FAS purchased a
protocol management application (for
the IACUC) along with a supplementary
animal procurement module (for OAR).
Fast forward to 2013, total spending
by OAR was more than $700,000—for
hardware and software, installation and
testing, annual licenses and support,
and departmental labor—yet RFID cage
census had not been implemented.
In August 2013, departmental restructuring shook up the OAR. One of the
first initiatives of the new Director was
to reinvigorate the switch from manual
cage counts to RFID census. What was
the hold up?
LESSONS LEARNED FROM RFID
First, we were hostage to multiple
dependencies. RFID cage cards had to
be linked to protocol details within the
IACUC’s management software. This
meant that the IACUC had to go “live”
with their protocol management system
before OAR’s RFID system could be
implemented—a task that would take
another full year.
Second, we were subject to con-
straints applied by FAS administration
that made the default configuration,
workflow, and logic of much of VMS
unusable, necessitating complex
software customizations and procedural
Third, OAR discovered that the integration of the RFID system with VMS
was not as seamless as envisioned.
The two systems used slightly different
algorithms for capturing and tracking
cage census, making a full integration
impossible and necessitating some
It would take three more years to
switch over from manual cage census
to RFID census. OAR would save time
as the census process would become
(mostly) automatic. And while OAR
was able to reclaim revenues previously
lost to once-weekly manual census, it
became clear that those revenues would
take many years to cover the initial
So, would we do it again? Yes, but
we would do things differently. Our
lessons learned begin with fully understand the objectives, constraints, and
products to be used before purchase,
followed by implement in the appropriate order.
In other words, we should have let
the IACUC fully implement its protocol
management software before OAR purchased the RFID census system.
It took creative countermeasures to
get RFID census across the finish line.
Some were software customizations
performed by vendors. Others were new
processes and tools developed by OAR.
One need was for an invoice mechanism to bill researchers for per diems
for cages under OAR’s care. That’s
because VMS/RFID did not integrate
with FAS financial systems.
To fill this gap, OAR worked with the
RFID vendor to create a census report