Making more data open

The UK is experiencing a data revolution. New and previously unimaginable sources are becoming available, along with the analytical tools and expertise that together will increase and improve the evidence available to decision-makers in government, business and beyond.

Here, Pete Stokes, Head of Research Services and Data Access, explains how the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is increasing the amount of data available for research and opening up access to data that can’t be “open”.

Arguably the biggest challenge for this increased use of data is the need to reassure the public, who fill in censuses and surveys, that their private information won’t ever be made public. We also need to demonstrate that we can use that information in a way that benefits society and serves the public good, without ever allowing them to be identified.

At ONS’ Secure Research Service (SRS) we are committed to making data more readily available and easily accessible for research. Understandably, data owners have a range of concerns about who has access to their data and how their data are used. Data breaches can have serious and far-reaching ramifications for everyone, for organisations that collect and hold data, for researchers who want access to data and for the public who trust beneficial use of their data. Weighing the concerns of protecting data, with the provision of security arrangements for researcher access to data that are not too restrictive, has always been a careful balancing act.

The real game changer in the way we work was the development of the Five Safes framework for safe data access. This simple model sets out the criteria necessary for safe use of data. As a researcher, if you wanted access to data that have been de-identified at the record level (secure use or microdata) to conduct a richer analysis with more granularity in the level of detail in the data, then you would have to meet certain criteria on the Five Safes model:

  • submit a project application for us to assess (Safe projects) that would include a justification of why you need secure-level data that is proportionate to its use (Safe data)
  • undertake assessed training and become an Approved Researcher to use this data (Safe people)
  • access the data following our procedures and using our systems (Safe settings)
  • have your research outputs checked by us before publication (Safe outputs)

If we have these in place, even though you would be working with data that have inherent risks, due to the level of detail in the data, you would still maintain overall safe use because each of the Five Safes have been suitably addressed.

Working to the Five Safes framework has allowed us to demonstrate an award-winning tested approach that has been shown to be effective in ensuring safe data access and use. Given our strong track record of protecting data, we have been able to build strong relationships with data owners based on trust in our service and how we operate. In turn, this has helped us to design systems tailored to researchers’ needs, with a new platform currently in development that will give more flexibility to when and where researchers can access data.

These developments come at an exciting time for our service. The newly enacted Digital Economy Act (2017) will provide a necessary gateway enabling central government departments to share data with researchers, including through ONS’ SRS. Our first step in this brave new world is the recently-announced partnership between ONS and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), with the launch of the new Administrative Data Research Partnership (ADRP). This partnership will lead to the expansion of our service to deliver a new data infrastructure across the devolved administrations to accommodate the coming data revolution and provide a safe way to facilitate policy-makers in making better decisions.

If you’re interested in doing some research through our service, you can find out about the data we currently hold and what’s needed to become an Approved Researcher.
We strive to facilitate research for the public good and we strongly encourage researchers to contact us to discuss their research and ask questions about how we work. We are a service designed for you and we want to know what we can do to help you produce great research.