Blog: Starting as we mean to go on

How we're laying the foundations to simplify data access

By Hugh Wallace, Chief Information Officer

12 January 2023

A new year feels like an opportune moment to reflect on the progress we’ve been making at Research Data Scotland, and how we’ll be stepping up a gear.  

We’re still a very young organisation – 2022 was our first full year operating as an independent charity and all but one of our staff have been recruited in the last 11 months. This means we’re piecing together our day-to-day operations, considering how we’ll be working alongside other organisations in the sector, and defining the type of services we need to deliver.

 

Developing the Researcher Access Service 

A priority has been to develop the thinking and plans around what we’re calling the ‘Researcher Access Service’.

One of the main reasons that RDS exists is to simplify and speed up access to public sector data, and in turn enable this data to be used for research purposes in the public good. The Researcher Access Service is being designed to streamline and enhance applications and approvals processes, and offer an end-to-end digital journey for the first time.  

Currently the ways and means of accessing this data (for example, in areas such as health, education, child protection, and justice) is pretty fragmented.

From a researcher’s perspective, even simple requests are not straightforward, forcing people to work across multiple websites and follow often convoluted processes. From an internal perspective, administration tools are limited and there is no effective means to track and monitor applications.  

 

Getting the plumbing right 

The exciting thing is that we have the opportunity to get the design right before we move into implementation.

Many of my previous roles have involved rolling out solutions on top of ‘broken plumbing’. This means that as much as you try to work to change legacy systems and broken processes, you’re often left making compromises and introducing workarounds because there isn’t the time, budget, or in many cases the mindset shift, required to make meaningful long-term change happen. 

Making sure we retain a laser-like focus on the important elements that make up the service – the design, infrastructure, agreements, processes and supporting content – and avoid getting diverted by shiny new tools and platforms is going to be a key challenge for our team.

This tweet from Ben Terret, formerly of the UK Government Digital Service, neatly encapsulates the point:

Working in partnership

We’re in the fortunate position of already having a good chunk of user research and analysis that highlights where some of the issues lie. We also have strong ties with our partners, who have a long track record of working in this area, including Public Health Scotland, Scottish Government, Administrative Data Research Scotland, National Records of Scotland and the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre.  

We’ve also benefited from the knowledge offered by SAIL Databank, HDR-UK and Office of National Statistics, all of whom have been very generous with sharing their time and expertise. 

 

Embedding best practice 

We’ll be striving to adopt the principles and best practice outlined in the Digital Scotland Service Standard and Scottish Approach to Service Design, bringing areas like accessibility and security to the fore, and making sure we’re developing the service incrementally.  

To that end we’ve recently engaged Nexer Digital to help deliver the first round of improvements, which includes overhauling and re-platforming our website, prototyping user journeys, and appraising technology options for the full end-to-end service. Bringing the skills and experience they’ve gained from working with clients such as Department of Education, UKRI and Mind, and working in close partnership with our own team, is a big part of getting the right plumbing in place.  

As the service develops, we’ll be sharing information via our blog and social channels, so keep your eye out for updates as they happen.

 

A brick wall, painted blue, with a large white arrow pointing right

 

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