Last reviewed 16 March 2016
With an eye on data security throughout, this article by Lisa Bushby discusses some of the electronic tools and techniques that laboratory managers can employ in their laboratories to track and store data that can include: experimental raw data, stock management, funding and proposal documents, and publications and reports, for example.
It is very common in laboratories, where laboratory equipment is purchased as and when funding is available, that laboratory managers have to deal with a variety of Information Technology (IT) legacy issues, and that while different systems should communicate with each other, many do not.
When considering data management in the laboratory though, the overriding priority should be aligned with the overall IT strategy, where laboratory managers would be well advised to take account of the plethora of virtualisation, cloud computing and ubiquitous web services now available that remove many of the technological barriers to the integration of automated systems. Given legacy issues, a laboratory management IT strategy should be approached from the viewpoint of deciding what to keep, what to update, and what to phase out or scrap, and should be seen as an ongoing effort to improve the quality and security of data.
Sources of data
While much of the data generated in any laboratory will be electronic, some will be hand written, such as that recorded in traditional laboratory note books by laboratory workers, with experimental details and observations. Laboratory books should be scanned periodically with pages stored electronically as uneditable Portable Document Formats (PDFs).
Good laboratory practice here is that each individual page should be identifiable with a name and date.
Most modern pieces of laboratory instrumentation will be interfaced to their own dedicated computer. Laboratory managers will appreciate that whether or not this computer is connected to a network can be described as a balance between data security and convenience of data manipulation. It can be seen that if the computer is connected to a laboratory network (not necessarily the internet), laboratory workers (and managers) can see and manipulate raw data from their own or any other computer that is connected to the laboratory network. Of course this data can, and should, be password protected at source with access given only to those who need it.
If the computer is not connected to a network, laboratory workers may prefer to transfer one or two choice data files from the instrument to their own computers for analysis at a time, eg through a Universal Serial Bus (USB) memory stick, while each experiment may generate any number of data files that is automatically stored on the instrumentation personal computer (PC). This bulk data will remain isolated on the instrumentation PC and should be periodically backed up separately.
Laboratory information management systems
Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) can provide a complete solution to data management in the laboratory, with commercial LIMS becoming ever more sophisticated.
For example, Two Fold Software offers its Qualoupe LIMS system that:
logs samples into the LIMS with a unique number and barcode where all actions performed against the samples are recorded with details of the individual performing the action and the time when the action was performed. This increase in traceability aids with regulatory compliance, improves the capacity of the laboratory, and improves turnaround times
captures data directly from laboratory instruments giving enhanced data accuracy and speed of data entry, again aiding with compliance and improving the performance of the laboratory
provides various levels of security and audit trails to enable laboratory managers to trace activity and provide accountability
provides access to historic data using inbuilt searching facilities and reporting tools that provide enhanced possibilities to perform analysis on data and to improve productivity
automatically performs calculations, removing errors during manual calculation processing and eliminating retesting
keeps track of consumables/reagents — many LIMS offer the capability to manage stocks of consumables, keeping track of expiry dates and locations, and link these to specific methods to control usage (see below).
As the amount and complexity of samples, reagents, components, equipments, etc increases it becomes increasingly difficult to track and monitor, and forecast stock levels of any particular item. However, it is possible to virtualise any fridge, storage cupboard, or bench through the use of an electronic laboratory inventory system without the need for a full LIMS system. This can be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet, but more sophisticated examples include the cobas Inventory Management System (cIMS) by Roche that can enhance the efficiency of the laboratory by simplifying inventory management procedures and instantly producing a wide variety of stock usage and financial reports, or the ATGC Labs’ Science & Engineering Lab Inventory that can quickly and easily upload existing Excel-based inventories to manage laboratory inventory, place orders and keep track of consumables all in one place.
Access to data
Theft and hacking are particular concerns with electronic data. Sensitive internet protocol (IP), funding or proposals documents, publications in progress and other reports all require high levels of security and access restriction.
It is a sensible step to establish a system of access control to the data generated in the laboratory, with the greatest controls on the data that is most costly to reproduce, restore or replace.
Other security tips include: keeping antivirus software protection up to date on every computer, using electronic signatures or watermarking to keep track of authorship and changes made to data files, regularly backing up electronic data files, particularly if the data is dynamic with frequent changes and updates, and encrypting data, particularly that stored on USB/other portable data storage media.
In its essence, cloud computing is the delivery of IT services through the internet. One of the key benefits of storing data in the cloud is that of reduced cost as the infrastructure is typically provided by a third party. However, for laboratory managers, a key benefit is that data remains up to date and allows researchers in laboratories around the world to collaborate.
Whether or not cloud computing is used in the laboratory, it is a good idea for laboratory managers to also make use of two external hard drives for periodic backups of all computers in the laboratory. One hard drive can be stored in the laboratory, the other at an external site. This relates to a common concern of many cloud computing users in that applications and data are typically placed in the hands of third parties that could withdraw their services at short notice for any number of reasons, or that this third party falls victim to a hacking attempt, although this is unlikely to be successful.
The advantages of keeping information electronically are evident: time spent on searching and recovery of data is minimised, it is easier to keep data up to date, paper usage and consequent need for storage is reduced and over time, the costs of managing the data are reduced. The challenge for laboratory managers is in keeping this data secure.