Award-winning UnionCloud enhances NUS services

Arrk Group has helped the National Union of Students, a not-for-profit organisation, enhance its student union membership experience with the development and launch of UnionCloud, its award-winning cloud-based membership management platform.

The digital platform, awarded The Times’ Higher Education Awards ICT Initiative of the Year in 2013, provides all the functions a student union requires to operate, such as online shopping, event management, ticketing, voting, advice, job shops, content management system, analytics and clubs/societies management.

What sets NUS UnionCloud apart is that it allows all this to be done over one single platform in a manner that is attractive and engaging.

Summary

UnionCloud is the NUS’s digital platform, providing the scalability to potentially connect with and communicate to the entire UK student population of around 7 million people. It has given NUS the potential to turn a diverse group of individual student union organisations into a cohesive and connected community.

The UnionCloud platform was designed and delivered on time and to budget by Arrk Group and gives NUS a best practice digital offering to both higher eduction and further education student unions, empowering them to manage their members’ activity through the student union be it for representation, advice, clubs/societies, events, voting and online shopping.

Situation

Due to ageing and dispersed IT systems and processes, NUS was losing the ability to service its member unions and was also experiencing increased competition from a number of external service providers capable of offering alternative digital platforms. This was having an adverse effect on revenue and usage, which in turn meant that less revenue was remaining within the student movement. Operating as a not-for-profit entity, profits generated from NUS activities are ploughed back into services.

Following a detailed consultation period, NUS decided that a fully integrated digital membership platform was required and would become the solution of choice for student unions by providing a cloud-based, easy-to-access platform for their day-to-day operations.

In the face of increasing competition from external commercial providers, a well-designed and architected solution that met all of NUS’s key criteria needed to be delivered quickly and in a high quality manner, on a critical path determined by the academic year.

Challenge

The UnionCloud project was not only a critical strategic initiative for NUS and the student union movement but also a significant financial investment. With the solution needing to have the scalability of coping quickly with up to 7 million users and have the flexibility to cope with volume peaks in August and September.

The organisational context was highly complex, with a diverse range of stakeholders whose needs and desires had to be embraced as part of the programme. Requiring much more than a team of smart software engineers, NUS required a partner which would work closely and collaboratively, building close relationships at all levels to become an integral part of the team, as well as having the expertise and experience of delivering complex enterprise scale digital solutions.

Solution

Developed as a modular platform, each UnionCloud deployment can be customised according to an individual student union’s requirements and branding, while retaining all the advantages of a centrally managed cloud-based system.

The digital platform utilises a combination of bespoke and off-the-shelf components, using a best-of-breed technology stack and open source components which ensures that UnionCloud is build upon rock solid foundations. These core elements are crucial in ensuring that UnionCloud is able to grow robustly and securely as more unions sign up.

Arrk Group and NUS team members work closely together to develop and support the UnionCloud platform and infrastructure and over an 18 month period has employed Agile development practices to quickly showcase and build working software.

It was developed using an Agile / scrum-based framework and built using technologies such as Ruby on Rails, Postgres, Redis and Resque.

Outcomes

The NUS UnionCloud won The Times’ Higher Education Awards ICT Initiative of the Year for 2013. A key factor in the success of the project was the collaborative partnership model used, with Arrk Group working closely with NUS to rapidly understand and shape programme requirements.

Successful and rapid deployment of the UnionCloud has ensured that revenues generated are driven back into NUS, with effective programme management ensuring a speedy route to market which delivers on UnionCloud’s potential.

Arrk Group’s unique hybrid delivery model has been crucial to the success of the project, and their technical skill, attention to detail and quality plus their speed of delivery have been important factors in helping us deliver UnionCloud effectively

Doug Tomlinson, NUS Group Director of IT and New Media

By utilising Agile delivery methods, a first for NUS, a distributed team of over 30 people successfully delivered the cloud-based platform under the strict deadlines imposed by the academic year. This approach was critical in streamlining the process of understanding and elaborating requirements, testing out technologies and developing the solution from day one. This helped to maximise communication and transparency and eliminate waste from the entire process, removing potential delays and bottlenecks.

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