I recently participated in the Administrative Data Research (ADR) Scotland public panel to discuss the development of Research Data Scotland (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.
Our starting point for the discussion was the set of principles that underpin RDS’s overall mission to improve the economic, social and environmental wellbeing in Scotland by enabling access to, and linkage of, data about people, places and businesses for research in the public good. These principles are;
- RDS will only enable access to data for research that is for the public good
- RDS will ensure that researchers and RDS staff can only access data once an individual’s personal identity has been removed
- RDS will ensure that all data about people, businesses or places is always kept in a controlled and secured environment
- RDS will only create a dataset if it is requested for a research programme or study that is in the public good
- All income that RDS generates will be re-invested into services to help researchers continue to access data
- Firms that access public data for the public good through RDS will share any commercial benefits back into public services
- RDS will be transparent about what data it provides access to and how it is being used for public benefit
We had an engaging discussion about how ‘public good’ is defined. I explained that RDS is building upon the existing process where public benefit and privacy panels scrutinise data requests to assess their public benefit. Users of the RDS service will still need to make the case about how their proposed research project will improve wellbeing and reduce inequalities across Scotland.
I also provided a short update on our ongoing engagement with data controllers and progress against securing a range of data holdings. As part of the ADR Scotland partnership, operating within ADR UK and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), we have been working with data controllers across Scotland to secure a range of data holdings that are broadly aligned with Scotland’s National Outcomes.
We discussed how datasets held by RDS would be kept relevant for the future in light of, for example, socioeconomic movements. RDS will never hold onto data unless there is a clear purpose for doing so. However, there can also be exceptions in certain situations. As a result of this conversation, I have now spoken to colleagues at the SAIL databank about their data retention policies. I’m going to reflect upon their advice to develop a data retention arrangement for RDS which includes the safeguards to ensure we go about holding onto data in a safe and transparent way. My intention is to join a future meeting of the public panel to provide an update on this, as well as the other areas discussed, and seek any further feedback.
One area that generated more detailed discussion was around the topic of working with the private sector and how RDS intends to work with private companies who may want to request access to data.
I highlighted that 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 good 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 leaving the data safe haven would always be at an aggregate level and all research outputs will be checked to ensure they do not allow people or organisations to be identified.
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. It is clear this is an area that needs careful consideration with appropriate measures put in place and this is something we will focus as we continue to develop the service.
I’m very grateful to the public panel for their time and comments and would welcome further discussion as we continue to develop RDS, so please get in touch if you’d like to be involved.