Frequently asked questions

Below you'll find answers to the questions we get asked the most about Research Data Scotland covering our service; safety, security and transparency; working with partners; the user experience; governance and our COVID-19 Research Data Service.

Service overview 

What is Research Data Scotland?

Research Data Scotland (RDS) is a new service that will offer a single point of contact for safe, secure and cost-effective access to high value public sector datasets for research, innovation and investment. RDS aims to improve access to data in order to support research that will benefit the public. 

What are the principles on which RDS is founded? 

o    RDS will only enable access to data for research that is for the public good
o    RDS will ensure that researchers and RDS staff can only access data once an individual’s personal identity has been removed 
o    RDS will ensure that all data about people, businesses or places is always kept in a controlled and secured environment 
o    RDS will only create a dataset if it is requested for a research programme or study that is in the public good 
o    All income that RDS generates will be re-invested into services to help researchers continue to access data 
o    Firms that access public data for the public good through RDS will share any commercial benefits back into public services
o    RDS will be transparent about what data it provides access to and how it is being used for public benefit

When will RDS launch?

RDS’s initial service offering was launched in Spring 2020. This initial phase allowed us to ensure the service provides a smooth user experience ahead of becoming fully operational in September 2021. Ahead of this, we will be making a number of key early staffing appointments and ensure that leadership and management structures are in place.

What datasets will be available?

RDS’s initial data offering will be focussed around providing faster access for data linkage to a suite of key public sector data, which will become available through Administrative Data Research Scotland (ADR). ADR Scotland is a partnership combining specialists in the Scottish Government’s Data Sharing and Linkage Unit with the expertise of academic researchers at the Scottish Centre for Administrative Data Research. Together they are transforming how public sector data in Scotland is curated, accessed and explored, so it can deliver its full potential for policymakers and for the public. This investment will secure data holdings broadly aligned to Scotland’s National Outcomes, including Children, Health and Wellbeing, and Education destinations.

What services will RDS provide?

RDS’s initial service offering will provide a single point of access to help researchers access a suite of key public sector data. 

RDS’s staff will co-ordinate information and help direct a researcher to the resource required, for example eDRIS, the open data platform or the regional safe haven’s customer support team.

The aim of RDS is to empower researchers and analysts to unlock value from public sector data. RDS will facilitate this by partnering with service delivery partners such as National Records of Scotland, University of Edinburgh (via the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre) and NHS/NSS. 

When fully functional, RDS will: 

o    Develop and maintain a data holdings portfolio that is de-identified and held securely
o    Provide a catalogue of the various datasets and metadata available that will include Data Controllers requirements, sampling methodology, and any restrictions on data use
o    Triage researchers’ enquiries and provide customer support service by offering a seamless journey from the point of enquiry to data delivery
o    Provide a service allowing data controllers to bring their datasets and link these to established datasets in the RDS portfolio for research in the public good
o    Provide a data analysis service
o    Ensure data access via the Scottish network of safe settings

What is RDS being set up to do?

RDS will declutter data access in Scotland by providing a single user journey, regardless of the type of data being requested. RDS will offer a seamless access pathway that brings together and coordinates the various moving parts of the researcher access journey for both health and non-health data. RDS will provide information about the data landscape and how to access the data, what timescales are likely to be encountered and the information that a researcher needs to provide to gain access to the data sets. With this, RDS is able to guide researchers through the data access journey, offering advice where needed, to make the process as seamless and effective as possible. 

Why are you launching RDS now? 

The Scottish Government is committed to facilitating data being shared securely for research that is in the public good. It is currently often unclear what public sector data is available for use in research and data can be of unknown or poor quality. It can also take a long time to access data as a result of data being dispersed between and within public sector organisations. 

As a result the opportunity to save time, money and lives is being missed. We need to work with data controllers and users to improve the quality of data for research use. We also need to make access to data more cost-effective, faster and more streamlined whilst ensuring there is ongoing trust, support and feedback from the public.  

How will public good be assessed?

RDS will measure its performance alongside the Scotland’s National Outcomes that form part of the National Performance Framework. These outcomes describe the kind of Scotland that the National Performance Frameworks aims to create. The outcomes; reflect the values and aspirations of the people of Scotland, are aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and help to track progress in reducing inequality. 


Safety, security & transparency 

Who will be able to access the data?

Researchers who are looking to provide insight from one or more public data sets for public benefit are able to access the data. RDS will carefully review all data access requests to ensure that the requestor holds the appropriate level of accreditation required and that the research is in the public good. All research outputs will be checked against the research objectives and to ensure they do not allow people or organisations to be identified. 

RDS will be co-ordinating requests for personal and special category data, which have tighter legal restrictions, as well as high-level, non-personal data requests.  

How will RDS ensure that data is accessed securely?

RDS will build on the existing data landscape and systems in Scotland. The Scottish Government is currently reviewing the user journey for access to data for research. In particular, we are looking at streamlining the approval process between the Public Benefit and Privacy Panels. In addition, we will hold discussions with data controllers not covered by either of these governance panels regarding access. 

RDS will carefully review all data access requests to ensure that the requestor holds the appropriate level of accreditation where required, the research is in the public good, and is in line with the data controllers recognised use of their data. RDS will never offer access to disclosive data and all research outputs will be checked to ensure they do not allow people or organisations to be identified. 

Does the data need to be held in the safe haven? 

No, not necessarily. It will depend on what the data controller is comfortable with and what information is contained in the data sets that are to be accessed. RDS will be aware if the data is in the safe haven or held with individual data controllers as well as the restrictions that data controllers put on the data, such as who can use it and for what purpose. 

How will the public know how data is being used and what the intended public benefits are?

RDS will also develop an open register that captures use of the data, details of who has accessed it, when and what happened to it. A condition of a researcher getting access to data would also be an agreement to publish the results. 

How will RDS engage with the public during its development? 

Against an existing backdrop of mixed views from the public about the use of data about them in research, we need to ensure there is ongoing trust, support and feedback from the public. 

RDS will continue to run a series of public engagement events to further understand public attitudes towards the use and linkage of data about people, places and businesses for research in the public good.

In July 2020, RDS participated in the ADR Scotland public panel to discuss the development of RDS and focus specifically on the principles that underpin the new service. The ADR Scotland public panel was created as a vital forum for understanding the views and perspectives of the public about the use of administrative data and to help to ensure research maximises public benefit in order to improve policies, services and, ultimately, lives. The panel consists of members of the public from across Scotland, from a range of different backgrounds and lived experience. A write-up of the key issues discussed is available here. 

Working with partners

How will RDS and ADR Scotland operate together?

RDS and ADR Scotland are separate and distinct initiatives that are working together to provide more efficient, more insightful and safer access to high-value datasets. The ADR Scotland partnership is operating under ADR UK and is funded by The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). This is a data acquisition programme seeking to secure a range of data holdings that are broadly aligned with Scotland’s National Outcomes. The programme will enhance an existing infrastructure, develop datasets and streamline information governance to support data linkage projects which will deliver high quality research to tackle key social challenges. 

Meanwhile RDS aims to enhance existing research user services. The aim is for RDS to ultimately be entirely self-funded and will be looking more broadly at research data access in Scotland, building on the acquisition programme being done by the ADR Scotland partnership and the NHS Scotland research user service to put in place a single point of contact for researchers looking for support and access to a range of datasets across all public sector data.  

How will RDS interact with other data services and systems?

As Research Data Scotland is not the only data service in Scotland or the UK, we need to ensure that it is as easy as possible for researchers to find and access data across Scotland and elsewhere in the UK. This will involve interoperability between different services where possible. This may include collaboration on how we organise metadata or creating ways that allow researchers to search for the data they want to use, such as holdings from Health Data Research UK or the Office for National Statistics. 

How can data controllers help to develop RDS? 

RDS will offer data controllers the opportunity to put their data in context by having comparative information from other places. Their data will help to provide new insights that help service efficiency and transformation by bringing together data from other fields – both by linking data about individuals, and by overlaying data about places and organisations. 

This has the potential to help data controllers’ organisations to gain a range of new insights such as where to site new services or a better understanding of their population. By bringing together data from a number of fields in a very secure setting there is mutual gain.

RDS may also ease the burden on data controllers who get multiple requests for particular datasets and potentially commission the data extraction for aggregate level requests.

How will RDS keep data controllers informed about the use of their data? 

RDS will provide regular updates to data controllers about how their data is helping to drive impactful research. Data controllers will have the opportunity to review any access permissions they have granted for the use of their data at any time. RDS will operate within the current Information Governance and legal frameworks and be aware of the restrictions on data set by data controllers. As part of this work we will also look at improved coordination between the various data access panels.

To further support transparency, RDS will also develop an open register that captures uses of the data, details of who has accessed it, when and what happened to it. A condition of a researcher getting access to data would also be an agreement to publish the results. 

How will the launch of RDS impact existing relationships with researchers?

Data access requests (as part of all panel approvals) still stipulate that researchers must contact the data controller to discuss a request so relationships should be maintained. RDS will also be aware of which data controllers hold which data and the variables. We will know the opportunities and limitations of the datasets. However, data controllers can still provide guidance as required.

How will RDS promote closer working between academic groups and analysts working within the public sector? 

RDS is working closely with the ADR Scotland partnership to facilitate and streamline research through collaboration with academic researchers to inform government policies and service provision. ADR Scotland works with a diverse range of stakeholders, engaging with them to co-produce and shape research questions and ensure they are aligned to policy priorities and strategies. 

How will RDS ensure impartiality when working in partnership with academic institutions that will also be funding research? 

The resources, expertise and capabilities offered by Scotland’s data infrastructure partners have been enabling high quality research in a secure and ethical way for many years. 

All research requests follow a strict framework to ensure data is kept secure and that all research is in the public interest. We will ensure that all data access requests are carefully reviewed to ensure that the requestor holds the appropriate level of accreditation.

In Scotland, all research involving data linkage follows the Guiding Principles for Data Linkage, designed to support the safe and appropriate use of data for research and statistical purposes. They ensure data linkage takes place within a controlled environment and that the research carried out is legal, ethical, secure and efficient. 

User experience 

How RDS will interact with its users? What can they expect? 

We are currently working on a new research user journey to ensure a seamless and smooth user experience. As part of this work we are looking at the steps required ahead of RDS reviewing a data request and the steps applicants will need to follow.

How long will RDS will take to provide access to data?

It is expected to take between a few weeks and a few months to provide approval to access the requested data sets, depending on the complexity of the request.  The removal of the need for researchers to interact with multiple services means that RDS will ensure access to data in a more timely and cost-effective way than under current arrangements. Since the access to the data may include complex extractions and linkages from existing data sets, this part of the delivery is also dependent on the complexity of the request.  

How RDS will interact with the services it commissions? 

RDS will commission and monitor an IT infrastructure to securely transfer, store and provide secure access to datasets, allocating resources to three services; high performance computing, indexing and customer support. 

RDS will be dealing with a range of data access enquiries and requests for research purposes and will commission the various services required to progress different types of research projects as appropriate. RDS will also audit the services that it commissions. 

RDS will be acting as a broker and so will not be a data controller.

Where do I go if I have a complaint about one of the services being commissioned? 

RDS will audit the service providers to ensure that the service provided remains fit for purpose. If you have any concerns or issues regarding the use of data by RDS, you should contact the relevant Data Protection Officers. 

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) data sharing code of practice explains how data protection laws apply to the sharing of personal data. It provides practical advice to all organisations, whether public, private or third sector, that share personal data and covers systematic data sharing arrangements as well as ad hoc or one off requests to share personal data.

Is RDS only dealing with requests for admin data? 

RDS’s scope will be wider than admin only data making access to other types of data, such as survey data, more streamlined.  

Are there any other countries in particular that you think Scotland can look to as an exemplar in this area?

We have looked at a range of other countries including Wales, Singapore, Australia, Canada, Denmark and New Zealand in order to understand and learn from their experiences in developing solutions to similar challenges. This has shown us that a successful data-led research programme must be built with the support of data controllers and users throughout its development. Any new service must be cost-effective, faster and more streamlined and there must be ongoing trust, support and feedback from the public established throughout. 

Governance, workforce & funding 

Who will be responsible for running the service?    

RDS is being set-up as a joint venture. It will build upon Scotland’s existing data linkage expertise working in partnership with key service delivery partners such as the electronic Data Research and Innovation Service (eDRIS), the Parallel Computing Centre at the University of Edinburgh (EPCC) and the National Records of Scotland (NRS). RDS will be set up as a free standing legal entity with its own legal personality. Its legal status will therefore be separate from that of partner organisations. More details will be available as arrangements are finalised.  

Who will staff RDS and where will it be located? 

We are in discussion with colleagues and delivery partners to establish a small core of staff made up of people directly employed by RDS. It is also expected that services will be commissioned out and brought in from partners. We are currently looking at a range of co-location options that will maximise our access to partners, interoperability and connectivity requirements and as well as value for money.

Will RDS be a data controller? 

As RDS will be acting as a broker so there is no requirement for us to be a data controller. 

How will RDS be funded? 

The 2020-21 financial year will be a transitional period financially for RDS. During this year, it will continue to be funded by a range of Scottish and UK funders. From the 2021-22 onwards, it is expected that RDS will be fully self-funded with its costs met through a variety of funding streams. These include: 

o    fee income levied from other users such as academics and analysts accessing the services as well as research institutions, business and industry. The current (eDRIS) scheme of graduated fees will remain in place for the time being and fees for these services will continue to be subsidised and supported
o    grants from research funding bodies which can offset some or all of the costs levied to researchers
o    there is also the potential for RDS to raise capital by borrowing to ensure a high quality service and a free standing legal entity is established to quickly meet the funding eligibility criteria.

Is RDS selling public data and how much will it cost? 

RDS will charge for services to access datasets. However, RDS is a not-for-profit organisation. Income will be invested in the service to pay for the expertise needed to keep data safe and to make it as useful as possible for researchers doing work in the public good. Data will not leave the safe settings overseen by RDS. If private sector organisations use RDS to access public sector data, they will pay for that access. In addition, RDS will agree a benefit sharing arrangement where a share of profit derived from this data access will be fed back into public services.

RDS will carefully review all data access requests to confirm that the requestor holds the appropriate level of accreditation, ensure that the research is in the public benefit and in line with the data controller’s recognised use of their data. The first thing that any private company would have to do would be to partner with someone in the academic or public sector. Any data transferred from secure environments will be at an aggregate level and all research outputs will be checked to ensure they do not allow people or organisations to be identified.

Who owns RDS?

RDS is a not-for-profit organisation. The management of RDS will depend on the legal option chosen for RDS. We will follow the legal requirements for the governance arrangements relevant to the chosen status.

Why does RDS need to be set up as an independent legal entity?

The set up as an entity with its own legal status will provide clear expectations regarding service delivery. In many respects RDS is not a new concept, but instead will formalise the previous Scottish Informatics and Linkage Collaboration (SILC) arrangements with the added benefits of including non-health data and more certainty around the data access journey, transparency, value for money and financial sustainably (such as the ability to invest and augment the service, seek investors etc.)


Will RDS be another government body/public body/quango?

No, RDS will not be another government body, public body or quango. RDS will be set up as a free standing legal entity with its own legal personality. Its legal status will therefore be separate from that of partner organisations. More details will be available as arrangements are finalised.  


COVID-19 Research Data Service 

Why has the COVID-19 research data service been launched? 

A data taskforce, led by Scottish Government, was established to enable evidence-based policy and operational decisions by organisations in Scotland. You can find the minutes from these meetings here. In June 2020, the data taskforce was replaced by the Scottish COVID-19 Intelligence Network.

By bringing together key datasets in a secure computing environment, researchers will be able to carry out collaborative research and analysis that provides evidence for important COVID-19 related decisions.  

This will be achieved by building on and repurposing a data infrastructure that includes resources, expertise and capabilities offered by service delivery partners and partner organisations, including the Scottish Government, PHS (eDRIS), NRS, EPCC and HDR-UK, alongside accredited facilities, such as the Scottish National Safe Haven and working in partnership with Scottish Universities. 

Scotland’s data infrastructure partners have been enabling research for many years, why do we need a COVID-19 research data service? 

To maintain a secure and coordinated response, it is important that requests for data for COVID-19-related research come through a single point of contact. This approach ensures transparency of who is requesting data, which datasets and for what purpose. 

This has been made possible by bringing together expertise, resource and capabilities from a range of existing data-led programmes across the public sector and more specifically the work which is already underway on the development of Research Data Scotland (RDS) and Administrative Data Research Scotland (ADR-S) programmes.

In response to the pandemic, RDS’s development has been accelerated to provide access to a researcher support service, access to data, information governance and a rich analytical environment. 

Is the COVID-19 research data service a new organisation? 

We are building upon Scotland’s existing data resources, expertise and capabilities offered by service delivery partners and partner organisations including The Scottish Government, PHS (eDRIS), NRS, University of Edinburgh, EPCC and HDR-UK.

This has been made possible by bringing together expertise, resource and capabilities from a range of existing data-led programmes across the public sector and more specifically the work which is already underway on the development of Research Data Scotland (RDS) and Administrative Data Research Scotland (ADR-S) programmes.

Who is providing oversight? 

The COVID-19 research data service has been developed with oversight by the COVID-19 Data Taskforce, under the leadership of Scottish Government, and working alongside trusted delivery partners, a range of Scotland’s leading academics as well as information governance and legal experts. 

Despite the national public health emergency, how do I know that data is still being accessed legally and ethically?

The resources, expertise and capabilities offered by Scotland’s data infrastructure partners have been enabling high quality research in a secure and ethical way for many years. This will continue throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

While we are moving at speed, we continue to follow the same rules for information governance that underpin our day-to-day work in establishing firstly whether there is a lawful purpose for access to the data.

For any requests involving data linkage, we are using established privacy-preserving approaches to protect individual’s privacy and leveraging the existing ADR Scotland infrastructure and methodologies.  Where new datasets are being linked, we are conducting DPIAs as appropriate in order to identify and address any new privacy risks.

We will also use the new rapid assessment process established for the Health and Social Care PBPP and Stats PBPP to ensure they will support vital decision-making and research with transparent, consistent, appropriate and proportionate scrutiny. The infrastructure delivery partners hold the highest level of UK accreditation standards. Data is stored in Scotland and there is no need to process outside the UK. We are working with the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) to ensure we uphold our duty of transparency. 

What is legal basis for the COVID-19 research data service? 

o    The COVID-19 data holding is a collection of de-identified, individual, linkable datasets being held within the National Data Safe Haven.
o    We will always adhere to current data protection legislation.
o    The COVID-19 data holding is a time-limited data holding and at an agreed end point, the data holding will be closed and data will either be deleted, or moved to another secure location (with appropriate governance).
o    Data processing agreements are in place with all partner organisations and include the steps which need to be taken to cease processing and to either destroy or return any data received once the public health emergency situation has ended.
o    All NHS data in the COVID-19 data holding will remain under NHS (PHS/NSS) control.
o    All non-NHS data will be handled in line with the law and the strict contractual agreements that are in place between the NHS/NSS and partners.

What will happen to data holdings after the pandemic is contained? 

When the pandemic abates and the outbreak is contained, we will close the data holding (currently this is open until INSERT CORRECT DATE). There will be learnings and benefits from the COVID-19 approach to data which will have long term and beneficial impact on the development of Scotland’s data infrastructure. This may include integration of data platforms as well as pace and cost-effectiveness of the process for securing the data available in Scotland.


Will researchers have to pay to access data in the COVID-19 data holding? 

Researchers will continue to be charged for the services they use to access datasets. All research projects will need approval, follow a strict framework to ensure data is kept secure, evidence that all research is undertaken in the public interest and researchers hold the appropriate level of accreditation.

Who will be able to access COVID-19 data holding? 

All research projects will need approval, follow a strict framework to ensure data is kept secure, evidence that all research is undertaken in the public interest and researchers hold the appropriate level of accreditation. Access to researchers and analysts will only be given for purposes related to the COVID-19 response.

We are using established privacy preserving approaches to data linkage which protect individuals’ privacy, leveraging the existing ADR infrastructure and methodologies. Where new datasets are being linked, we are conducting DPIAs as appropriate in order to identify and address any new privacy risks.

We will use the new rapid assessment process established for the Health and Social Care PBPP and Stats PBPP to ensure they will support vital decision-making and research with transparent, consistent, appropriate and proportionate scrutiny.

While moving at speed, we are following the same rules for information governance that underpin our day-to-day work in establishing firstly whether there is a lawful purpose for access to the data. All infrastructure delivery partners hold the highest level of UK accreditation standards.