National Institute of Health (NIH)

Client Name: National Institute of Health (NIH)

Project Name: Automated Guide System

Overview & Objectives:

NIH's Automated Guide System (AGS) was intended to integrate the current business needs/workflow processes of the individual Institutes/Centers (ICs) into a single automated application that would begin with a new draft grant Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), and would take that draft through an internal review process, through the Early Notification System (required for all FOAs to facilitate inter-IC collaboration), through the Office if Extramural Programs (OEP) special program review process (called Q2A), and finally allow the Office of Extramural Research (OER) web branch to publish those notices to multiple online destinations including and 


The five main goals of the AGS system included:


1.     Provide version control and a flexible automated workflow process that can be adapted to each individual ICs needs/preferences designed to increase the efficiency of the internal review process by eliminating (or providing an alternative to) the current practice of emailing Word documents.

2.     Create a transparent system that will allow ICs/ENS Coordinators to check the current status of an FOA at any point in the review and publication process.

3.     Ensure that ICs maintain complete control over the scientific portions of any FOA and also ensure that any changes made by OEP to an approved template are automatically updated in the ICs Draft to eliminate delays in the approval process due to FOAs being submitted using an outdated template.

4.     Create a flexible management system for the development and maintenance of online templates and application forms.  Templates and applications that are available for use by the ICs should be automatically updated with revisions so the most current version is always in use.

5.     Automate the publication process to eliminate the need for OER to manually convert Word data into HTML and XML for online publication greatly increasing the efficiency and rapidity of the publication process.


Requirements Gathering:

AboutWeb was tasked with architecting an advanced, dynamic, scalable publication management system for NIH in order to automate and streamline the process of developing grant FOAs, managing collaboration between institutes, reviewing the announcements, and then publishing the announcements to multiple online destinations including  

Evaluations of current COTS technology had been completed prior to contract award and it was determined that only a customized solution would be able to meet the diverse needs at NIH.  AboutWeb proposed an advanced ColdFusion application to manage the document management and review process as well as the customized template builder (used to create and maintain FOA templates). 


The first portion of this multi-phase project was the detailed gathering of requirements and the creation of a System Requirement Specification (SRS) document.  The requirements gathering process for the Automated Guide System (AGS) involved researching and establishing a baseline of the current system and business processes through interviews with project stakeholders including representatives from the 27 individual institutes and centers that make up the NIH and other NIH offices with review/policy or administrative support functions in the FOA grant publication process. 

AboutWeb conducted meetings with a "vanguard" group of stakeholders, but also met individually with some select institutes and offices to better gage individual levels of use and institute specific requirements of the overall system.

The SRS/requirements gathering document included a detailed description of the current system and how it is being used, key findings from the interviews, and listed both the recommendations for the architecture fo the new system and how the proposed solutions would address all of the key issues that had been identified.

The requirements gathering phase was estimated to take approximately 9 weeks and the document was delivered on schedule.  The document was evaluated by NIH and approved for development. 

System Description:

Based on requirements from the NIH institutes and project sponsors, the system was designed to include the following system modules:


1.     Template Builder

2.     FOA Creation/Peer Review

3.     Early Notification System (ENS)

4.     Workflow Engine

5.     Version Control System

6.     System Administration Module

7.     Publication


The template builder was designed to be accessible only to OEP responsible for maintenance and distribution of the 30+ page FOA templates.  Because there were over 100 possible template variations, the creation of the template builder itself was highly complex, isolative individual business rules for each template component, sometimes down to the paragraph.  The objective was to allow templates to be generated on the fly bsed on a small amount of input from users, reducing the need for users to search through all existing templates to find the correct one for their FOA.


The template builder also allowed managers to make global changes to template boilerplate without having to reissue new templates.  FOAs that were in draft form in the system would be automatically updated with the changes, and alerts would be sent to authors with information regarding the change.  This was a particularly important requirement, as FOAs were frequently rejected because the template that was current when they began their draft had expired by the time the draft was sent for review.


The FOA Creation and Peer Review module provided a dashboard UI for users to create, track and manage their documents as well as documents under review.  The system allowed grant authors to assign and manage document reviewers, review and organize comments, accept and reject changes, create document attachments, as well as compare comments from multiple reviewers and maintain a publication checklist to ensure that all attachments and signoffs had been received prior to submission to the formal Q2A review process. 


An existing web-based Early Notification System (ENS) was also incorporated into the new AGS as part of the objective to streamline the FOA development process.  The ENS was a message board listing all FOAs in process in order that other institutes/centers could review FOAs prior to release to ensure that Multiple FOAs with a similar purpose could be consolidated to avoid duplication. The ENS module of the AGS system monitored a detailed timeline of when FOAs were submitted, and determined for how long any specific FOA would remain in the system.  No FOA could be released to Q2A review until being cleared from ENS.  The ENS workflow was highly complex including a search engine, a subscription service for users to receive updates on selected FOAs, and automatic email notifications at critical points in the timeline.


Once the draft FOA was cleared in ENS, the author would make final changes and submit to Q2A review.  The OEP office in charge of Q2A could then create their own customizable workflows using the workflow engine provided and assign reviewers just as the institutes/centers. If rejected, it would be sent back to the institute/center for changes.  If approved, the document would be sent to OER for publication.


The customizable workflow engine allowed individual institutes/centers (as well as OER) to create their own project workflows on the fly to accommodate the varying levels of complexity within each organization. 


The version control system was developed primarily to help manage versions of the templates in the template builder, but as changes to the templates affected any current draft documents, this was a highly complex system that had to take into account notifications to authors as well as the "trickle down" effect of making changes to parent templates and having those changes automatically update child templates.


The Administration Module was developed to manage users and user accounts as well as permissions for users, groups and roles.  The Admin module also managed custom lists and database queries used to populate the dynamic templates.


Publication was designed to be a two-part system that would send the final approved FOAs to OER for technical review of the submission, and then deliver the approved FOA as a coded XML email to  It could also then be uploaded to the NIH grants websites or distributed to institute specifics sites via RSS or API.