Researchers promised more access to UK government-held data

New Integrated Data Service will open access to accredited academics to capitalise on ‘revolution’ in data-sharing fostered during pandemic

September 5, 2022
Source: iStock

Researchers have been promised quicker access to a wider range of UK government-held data as part of the launch of the Integrated Data Service (IDS), which is likely to be opened to accredited academics early next year.

The cloud-based platform developed by the Office for National Statistics hopes to capitalise on the “revolution” in data-sharing fostered during the pandemic, which underlined the importance of allowing researchers based at higher education institutions access to crucial datasets to help shape government policy.

IDS, a successor to the Secure Research Service (SRS), will hold de-identified, linked datasets, reflecting the broad range of social and economic data held across government departments such as the Longitudinal Education Outcomes survey, which connects an individual’s education history with their employment and earnings over the years using a variety of information sources.

Alison Pritchard, the UK’s deputy national statistician, said the IDS represented a shift in how the government collaborates with researchers, moving away from a model that involves “waiting for a project to emerge and then rushing around to try to get the data for it” towards a recognition that “critical national data assets” should be made readily available “so we have the ability to answer questions that we don’t yet know we need to answer”.

It is hoped that the service will foster more collaboration among institutions to work on projects that shed light on some of the the big challenges of the day, such as rising food and fuel prices and efforts to achieve net zero and adapt to climate change.

Some 3,000 researchers based at higher education institutions are accredited with the SRS and will be able to use the IDS when it is opened for use outside government, something Ms Pritchard hopes will be possible by early 2023.

She confirmed that when new data-sharing agreements are negotiated, “there will be a default understanding that they will be made available for wider academic use”.

While analysts had come to recognise the benefits of the system, Ms Pritchard conceded that there was more work to do to convince data providers to sign up.

“We have made big steps forward, but there are still fundamental challenges to overcome,” she said. “The federated government model generates a very clear protective bubble around data assets held within government departments.”

Although there is always a desire and intent to share data, concerns about risk management often prevent wider use, according to Ms Pritchard, who said a cultural shift was required that would see departments cede some control over their data in recognition of the benefits for research overall, while trusting in the stringent security and ethics procedures that are in place.

SRS started life as a very closed-off system that required a researcher to surrender their phone before accessing information in a locked room monitored by CCTV, but the pandemic necessitated a move towards more forms of remote access, albeit still strictly managed.

IDS will be more accessible; its cloud-based system can be accessed from an academic’s own laptop, although strict controls will likely remain in place for academics where the government does not have control over devices.

“You’ve got to get the balance right between security and functionality,” Ms Pritchard said. “SRS is an incredibly closed system which is highly secure, but as a consequence functionality is limited. I’m trying to find a sweet spot around providing as much openness as possible while maintaining security and ethics.”

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