Improving Research Access for Potentially Disclosive Data in Wales

Lead Research Organisation: London School of Economics and Political Science
Department Name: Centre for Economic Performance


Due to a long-standing collaboration between the academic funding councils and government the UK has one of the oldest, best established infrastructures for providing research access to microdata in the world. UK researchers in academia and government have long taken advantage of the wealth of available data to produce internationally respected, policy relevant research. However, in recent years, new guidelines for government data handling combined with economic pressures have created a tension between the need to maximise returns to investment in data collection, and the obligation to ensure absolute confidentiality to respondents.

This tension means that it is necessary for government bodies to have a comprehensive overview of data resources under their control, in order to understand the level of sensitivity of each resource, for reassurance that access policies conform to legislative and ethical standards, and to enable assessment of whether these resources can be more fully exploited. To address this challenge the Welsh Government (WG) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) have jointly funded four fellowships with the aim of obtaining a set of recommendations on secure strategies for maximising returns to confidential data resources.

Based in Cardiff, and working closely with the other fellowships, WG Policy and Knowledge and Analytical Services, the Secure Anonymised Information Linkage project at Swansea and other key stakeholders, this fellowship will focus specifically on data access.

In the first phase the Fellowship will carry out an audit of data resources controlled by WG. The audit will assess any legal, ethical and security considerations arising from existing collection methods, and from any increased access to data including the use of previously unsupported methods such as data linking. Then, using ESRC and WG research priorities, alongside consultation with stakeholders, 'gaps' in data will be identified, and where possible filled through negotiations with other data providers.

The completed audit, in conjunction with feedback from stakeholders and the other fellowships will then be used to assess the infrastructure required to underpin a secure data access policy. This policy will take into account existing infrastructure such as the Economic and Social Data Service, the Secure Data Service, and government standards for Research Data Centres, among others. Where possible, solutions will be based around these pre-existing facilities. Where the existing infrastructure and support systems are inadequate, solutions will be put forward based on international best practice.

As implementation is not within the remit of this Fellowship the project will actively consult with data custodians and seek to secure their 'buy in' where possible to maximise the chances of a successful outcome. In addition a consultative group will be established early on in the project, and stakeholders on all sides will be encouraged to submit their views via an on-line forum so that recommendations can be closely aligned with stakeholder needs.

This Fellowship is a very important initiative. It will produce the first full overview of a UK governmental body's data resources and access strategy. The Welsh Government's commitment to maximising returns to investment in data collection is a significant step towards making the UK civil service efficient and cost-effective. Both the recommendations arising from this fellowship as well as any lessons learned from implementation will be disseminated in the hopes that the WG's example of best practice in data management will be adopted by other government bodies within the UK and beyond.

Planned Impact

Anyone with an interest in Welsh microdata, or in secure data infrastructures could feel the impact of this research. This would include researchers who analyse Welsh microdata, policy makers, welsh citizens and businesses, data access specialists, the wider UK government, and anyone involved in implementing a practical data access strategy.

Firstly, the audit of data resources that forms part of the fellowship will provide a useful tool for researchers and policy makers to identify and locate data. This will facilitate research, and save time and money, as it will be easier to ensure that the data resources needed to investigate an issue are available before any work begins.

Researchers in government, academia and the third sector (and potentially private sector depending on legal and ethical considerations) will benefit from having access to wider range of Welsh microdata resources at a more detailed level than was previously available. They will also benefit from an improvement in the data infrastructure. Providing access to microdata in secure environments that facilitate methods such as data linking and small area analysis to be carried out will encourage full exploitation of microdata resources.

As well as being able to commission research using a wider range and detail of microdata, Policy makers will benefit from research undertaken at the initiative of researchers, and at the prompting of funding agencies.

This project also has potential to impact the Welsh economy, not only through the increased interest in researching Wales that is likely to arise from an improvement in data resources, but also by reducing the response burden on Welsh individuals and businesses thus saving time and money. If, in addition, WAG is able to reduce its survey costs through more efficient exploitation of existing resources, there is the potential for a small but valid impact on the Welsh economy.

As published information on secure data access infrastructures, in particular in relation to government strategy is still relatively sparse, any report on the subject will contribute to the body of knowledge and international standards.

It is to be hoped that government departments in England who are under particular pressure to make existing data resources available, and to maximise the returns to investment in data collection would make use of the recommendations in this report and adapt them to their own needs. If this were to happen, the impact on microdata research across the UK could be significant, and if the UK government departments were to act together the savings would be substantial.

The research will be disseminated via the Reports; via presentations at conferences and workshops; in collaboration with the bodies in the existing UK data infrastructure such as RSS, ESDS, SDS, DCC, and Welsh research centres such as SAIL and WISERD; through presentations within WAG, and to government departments; via social networks such as; and via a blog.


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