Research Data Scotland – Progress and priorities

February 2021

Blog by Roger Halliday, Chief Statistician, Scottish Government and Interim CEO, Research Data Scotland.

Research Data Scotland’s mission is to improve the health, economic, social and environmental wellbeing of Scotland by enabling innovation and research through access to data for research in the public good. It will also aim to attract investment into Scotland by creating the environment supporting ethical and secure data driven research.

This is a “do once for Scotland” approach, drawing together and building upon the amazing talent we have here. I wanted to let you know the recent progress and plans for Research Data Scotland for 2021.

We have world class data, but as we found at the start of the pandemic, our data isn’t held around people, places and businesses, it is locked away in lots of individual systems, distributed across organisations, and isn’t in a format that makes access or integration of the data easy. RDS is building on the existing data infrastructure in Scotland to offer safe, secure and cost effective access to data for research, innovation and investment.

In May last year, we launched an acceleration of RDS working collaboratively with partner organisations on the setting up of the Covid researcher data service. This hosts around 25 datasets brought together for research to support our Covid response. Demand from researchers is really high to do important analysis. So, in 2021 we are planning to add data on vaccinations, around children, health imaging, geospatial and data from the justice system.

This is only possible because we’ve secured investment from ADR-UK, HDR-UK, and Scottish Government, and with the support of our key delivery partners Public Health Scotland, EPCC, Scottish Government, and National Records Scotland.

As well as widening the range of datasets, we are also focussed on achieving a step change in the speed of access to data for research, whilst improving transparency and continuing to deliver proportionate information governance and ethical assessment.

In particular, we’re making step changes in the service for researchers:

  • redesigning and simplifying process for researchers to apply for use of this data
  • vastly speeding this up without diluting proper governance
  • aligning the secure holding of national and regional NHS data for research
  • enabling researchers to see what datasets are available, and
  • enabling the public to see who has applied (or got) access to which datasets for what purpose
  • developing a commercial framework to clarify the rules for private sector organisations using this data in the public interest and how benefits will be shared.

To achieve the goal of improving lives through data driven research and innovation, we are also continuing to develop and implement a new Information Governance approach to secure agreement to specific types of research use with data owners up front. This builds on current tried and tested approaches. As this develops, we will publish details, along with discussing with interested parties such as the Information Commissioners Office – Scotland. It is important to remember that a key principle of Research Data Scotland is that it only will allow access for research in the public good.

Research Data Scotland is now formally established as an organisation, and we’re now applying for it to become a charity. However, this is still in development: We’re working with our partners to bring in the people to make this all happen, and better integrate people working across Research Data Scotland partner organisations. So, while this service won’t change overnight and improvements will be iterative, our focus in 2021 is to drive down the time taken to access data without compromising scrutiny or security. I’m expecting this to mean more people innovating with data in the public good, and in time that to save time, money and lives.