Over £2 million has been awarded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – the UK’s largest public funder of research – to fund a series of Driver Projects as part of the DARE UK (Data and Analytics Research Environments UK) programme.
The team behind SeRP (Secure eResearch Platform), based within Population Data Science at Swansea University Medical School, will lead one of these driver projects, known as TELEPORT, and co-lead another, TRE-FX, in partnership with the University of Manchester and others. These projects are focused on the development of federated data analysis across the UK’s population data landscape. Around £1m has been provided by UKRI to fund these specific projects.
In parallel with a further three other driver projects, these projects will collectively work towards designing a UK-wide network of Trusted Research Environments (TREs) – highly secure digital environments that provide access to sensitive data for analysis by accredited researchers that use health and administrative data in the public interest.
Sensitive data made accessible for research is de-identified (all personal identifiable information is removed) and held in TREs, which have a series of strict security measures to prevent re-identification and protect against data misuse. This enables researchers to securely analyse the data for important societal projects.
SeRP is a completely customisable, TRE solution for data sharing, linkage and analysis in a safe, secure and controlled environment that’s accredited to the highest international standards (ISO27001, DEA2017 and Cyber Essentials). The SeRP infrastructure provides data solutions to over 30 projects and organisations that includes the national TRE for Wales, the SAIL Databank, which hosts over 10 billion anonymised health and administrative records.
Currently, different TREs across the UK follow different standards and processes, making it difficult for researchers to conduct analyses on multiple datasets held across different TREs. The five driver projects will explore solutions to developing more standardised approaches to running and governing TREs, so that data can be more easily analysed across them in a safe, secure and efficient way.
Federation of data allows secure research objects to move between TREs (but not the data itself) while still supporting the TRE Five Safes principles that govern and protect sensitive data. Research objects are a standardised way of describing and packaging the digital information needed to pose a research question and report the answer.
SeRP Federation enables these objects, which take the form of an algorithm or database query code, to be deployed on standardised data structures. Federation navigates the diverse governance protocols of different TRE’s to return the desired insights to the researcher without ever compromising data security.
Led by the team at SeRP, TELEPORT’s mission is to automate the federation process resulting in a novel model of ‘pop-up TREs’ by federating health data from Wales and Scotland in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh and Public Health Scotland. A key part of this work will be to explore how similar but different approvals processes can be brought together so that the data controllers – the people who are ultimately responsible for the data – can have the confidence it is being used appropriately and securely by researchers and in line with the uses they have approved.
With a UK-wide scope, TRE-FX will demonstrate how federated data analysis across national and region TRE’s can become a reality. This project will exploit existing technological capabilities that enables researchers to run analyses across geographical regions and complex governance boundaries.
This scale of data federation can allow for timely analysis of data during public health emergencies, such as COVID-19, and other large-scale epidemiological studies. Working alongside SeRP and the project’s lead institution, the University of Manchester, TRE-FX also brings together the universities of Nottingham, Dundee, Birmingham, Liverpool, Health Data Research UK (HDR UK), ELIXIR-UK, Bitfount and Birmingham University Hospitals NHS Trust.