Can we link it?…….hopefully

Darllenwch y  dudalen hon yn Gymraeg

We are more aware than ever before of the public value of data and one way we can make the most of it is by linking it together and sharing it. For example if local authorities link data from across different services it can help them understand the interactions between services and maybe understand more about how prevention can be used to support better outcomes for people. In most cases of data linking, such as this, data is anonymised so that identifiable information is removed from the data. Research has shown that people are generally comfortable with data held by public bodies being linked for research, particularly if it’s anonymised.

That being said, when dealing with any type of data, particularly personal data, it is imperative that linking and sharing data is done securely, ethically and in compliance with existing data protection legislation. One barrier some organisations face is the lack of infrastructure enabling them to securely link, anonymise and share data. Luckily for us in Wales we have an array of expertise in this particular field with both the SAIL (Secure Anonymised Information Linkage) Databank, based in Swansea University and the Administrative Data Research Centre – Wales (ADRC-W) run jointly by Swansea University and Cardiff University.

So how can we make use of this expertise and their technology to overcome existing barriers to securely share data? Step forward the ‘Dataflow Development Project’! Granted it’s not the most exciting project title, but the potential benefits could have a real impact on how we deliver our services to the people of Wales.

What is the Dataflow Development Project?

Funded jointly by Welsh Government and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the project aims to explore whether the technology behind SAIL could be installed within all local authorities in Wales, enabling them to securely anonymise, link and share data. But what does this mean in practice? Well, we’ve broken the project down into the following tasks:

  • Investigate what the current ICT infrastructure is within all local authorities in Wales to find out how the SAIL technology can best be installed.
  • Pilot the installation of the SAIL technology, in the form of National Research Data Appliances (NRDAs), in a small number of local authorities.
  • Pilot the anonymising, sharing and linking of datasets using the NRDAs.
  • Produce analysis based on newly linked datasets for pilot authorities to get a better understanding of the benefits.

What are the benefits?

The pilot element of the project will allow local authorities to easily link their own datasets and, where there are appropriate data sharing agreements in place, share anonymised datasets with other pilot local authorities. In doing so, the local authorities can be confident that this is being done securely.

The pilot will also demonstrate to local authorities how they can use data linking to help them develop and evaluate their policies through analysis of linked datasets. For example project researchers will analyse data already held in SAIL linked to data the pilot authorities have relating to the Welsh Government early years programme, Flying Start. They will then share the analysis with the individual pilot local authorities to help them understand the effectiveness of interventions.

A wider potential benefit is that if local authorities decide to, they will be able to easily transfer their anonymised datasets into the actual SAIL Databank. If they opt to do this, this will increase the range of datasets held in SAIL that can potentially be made available to the wider research community for statistical and research purposes. This in turn will enable researchers to analyse how things change over time and monitor the impact of interventions.

So far, so good

With so many benefits on offer, for local authorities in particular, we are looking forward to seeing how this project progresses. Currently we are in the early stages of the project, which is being led by our colleagues in Swansea University. They’ve been working hard speaking to local authorities to find out what they have in place in terms of their ICT infrastructure. They’ve also been working closely with the pilot authorities to ensure that all the relevant agreements are in place before the installations can take place. As you can imagine, these are by no means small tasks, though we are making progress and the first NRDA is already in place in Swansea local authority.

As with all new projects we are keen to find out whether this delivers the benefits we’ve outlined. However as we are only at the start of the journey we will have to wait a little while yet. We’re keen to share the progress that we make and plan to provide an update through the blog in the future, so watch this space.