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After an audit in 2018, our IT activities were swiftly reorganised in 2019, enabling us to achieve a number of early wins over the course of the year. These achievements included the progressive rollout of new laptops to make our workforce more flexible and the launch of a new technical platform for continuous, streamlined delivery.
To deliver short-term benefits for examiners, formalities officers and users, we also continued to upgrade our existing tools. Decommissioning obsolete hardware and software, and replacing it with state-of-the art alternatives marked another step towards higher information security. In parallel, we also prepared multiple programmes under SP2023 to give the EPO secure, cutting-edge tools, as well as the infrastructure required for their deployment and operation.
This programme will progressively digitalise our back-office for the patent grant process (PGP). Essentially, it will drive the transition to fully electronic workflows for filing, file distribution, stock management, search, examination, opposition and appeal, as well as post-grant procedures. Building on the work done under Goal 3 to radically simplify our procedures, we will create a modern digital environment for the end-to end PGP.
This programme will deliver huge benefits in terms of improving quality and timeliness; cutting costs and paper usage; and enhancing services for both internal and external users. In 2019 design-thinking workshops were organised to gain a user centric view of the needs to be addressed. We also launched a series of activities, including a paperless search workflow pilot, to simplify formalities processes and harness the power of examiner innovations.
This programme prepares search for the future. Prior art management will provide higher quality data, search tools will converge into one main search platform and data enrichment will move us closer to a semi-automatic search.
Data captured by the new search platform will also give us deeper insights into the search process and form the basis for future artificial intelligence (AI)-based assistance to help examiners find the most relevant documents quickly and easily. The EPO will continue to increase examiner access to non-patent literature (NPL) and non-native (i.e. Asian) prior art.
This new search platform will enable a more harmonised approach to searching, while still offering the flexibility to support examiner-led innovation. It will strongly promote collaborative working, while encouraging examiners to share knowledge, concepts and search strategies.
In 2019, progress was made in three key areas:
With this programme the EPO will apply artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain technologies to increase the efficiency and quality of its products and services. The programme marks a major step towards tomorrow's data-driven and fully digitalised EPO.
In 2019 we produced a programme roadmap targeting multiple areas within the EPO where AI can help to deliver significant efficiency and quality gains via natural language processing, computer vision, machine translation, examiner and applicant assistant functions and blockchain.
This programme will enhance the EPO's online interaction with users to increase their satisfaction with our products and services. It features a set of eight projects ranging from enhanced customer relationship management to a relaunch of the EPO's website (epo.org) with high-impact web analytics to facilitate continuous improvement. The programme will also provide users with an upgraded range of online services related to the patent grant process, including a new electronic filing process, an expanded user area, electronic communications and portfolio management. The key elements of this programme were presented and discussed at the 5th meeting of the SACEPO Working Party on the e-Patent-Process (SACEPO/ePP) on 5 February 2020.
The digital administration programme will modernise corporate services across the office using standard market solutions delivered through and with off-the-shelf functionality. By harnessing synergies between solutions, we will simplify and support digital workflows between organisational entities, while avoiding obsolescence and harmonising our IT landscape.
In 2019 the programme delivered several improvements in terms of software upgrades (migration to Windows 10, Office 365, Chrome), extending WiFi to all EPO buildings (to be completed in 2020), upgrading the technology of several EPO websites (pensioners website, IP5, national offices centre, etc.) and increasing the automatic recognition of vendor invoices. In terms of vendor management, a new software acquisition channel was set up to consolidate key IT contracts.
To ramp up the EPO's response to growing cyber risks, the "Strengthen information security" programme will deliver improved protection from threats and attacks. In November 2019, we successfully headed off a cyberattack against one of our key IT subcontractors by ensuring business continuity and avoiding any spread to our infrastructure, as well as updating and upgrading protection mechanisms. As 2019 drew to a close, we focused on finalising our new IT security programme by clearly defining our objectives, key outputs and benefits, which resulted in a detailed roadmap and milestones.
The infrastructure programme is the key to improving the availability of our IT systems and delivering the infrastructure (data centres, hardware and architectures) needed to implement a fully digital, end-to-end grant process. It will enable the EPO to introduce enhancements to existing tools, develop common tools with national patent offices (NPOs), and continue to invest in corporate solutions and digital workplace capabilities.
By the end of 2019 the first network equipment and racks were installed in our new data centre in Luxembourg. We also completed our mainframe asset verification and cataloguing, giving us a comprehensive overview of our legacy, allowing us to successfully execute the first pilot processes on a new test platform.