SeRP behind federated analysis platform for pandemic perinatal research: Part of the International COVID-19 Data Research Alliance (ICODA)

Last summer we announced SeRP’s (Secure eResearch Platform) role in the ground-breaking International COVID-19 Data Research Alliance – ICODA – funded by the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, a large-scale initiative started by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome, Mastercard with additional support from Minderoo Foundation, and other donors. ICODA is convened by Health Data Research UK.

The article outlined the collaborative efforts to develop the ICODA Workbench; a digital infrastructure technology, led by Aridhia Informatics and utilising a SeRP ‘Adapter’, that allows international scientists to discover, access and analyse global, multi-dimensional datasets. To get the full background, that article can be found here >

Since then, ICODA has had to develop rapidly to meet the growing, multi-layered challenges associated with COVID-19. ICODA has established 12 ‘driver projects’ that provide a research-specific focus to the most urgent problems societies face and are designed to boost ICODA’s long-term reach and impact as a platform. 10 of these projects have emerged from a Grand Challenges funding call – a Gates Foundation grant programme designed to accelerate global health research. It’s hoped that these initiatives will help tackle COVID-19 now and improve our collective preparedness for future pandemics. More information about this partnership can be found here >

The International Perinatal Outcomes in the Pandemic Study, or iPOP Study, was one of the first ICODA driver projects to be announced. Preterm birth is the leading cause of infant mortality worldwide with underlying causes largely unknown. The iPOP Study recognised that COVID-19 lockdowns resulted in substantial fluctuations in preterm birth and stillbirth numbers across different countries and its mission is to find out why and how lockdown-connected factors affect perinatal health worldwide.

The iPOP Study needed a space to host, collate, and combine data where scientists and experts in the field could collaborate to find answers to these research questions. Housed in the SAIL Databank tenancy, SeRP is now facilitating data hosting and analysis to the iPOP Study consortium analysts working on this driver project. The iPOP Study platform enables secure perinatal data contribution from 26 countries, including 11 lower- and middle-income countries (LMIC).
SeRP’s end-to-end data capabilities and approach to tailored governance provides secure data transfer and hosting to this complex, multi-institution data network, opening up analytical opportunities for authorised researchers to work across the datasets in a single, secure, integrated environment. In this instance, the pre-defined robust governance and mature analytical platform which the SAIL Databank tenancy of SeRP provides were ideal to house the data and connect to the ICODA Workbench to permit federated queries to run from the Workbench, a separate Trusted Research Environment (TRE) built by Aridhia Informatics, into SAIL. This delivers rapid analytical results to multiple datasets without the need to transfer data out of SeRP’s secure setting.
The premise of federated queries in this manner, validated by the iPOP Study, is that data can be held in a disparate location to the analytical function, yet still permit quality science and analyses. This approach has also enabled apps and analysis tooling at the Workbench end to be seamlessly integrated to the research project, without the need for multiple TRE access, and with the SeRP/Aridhia partnership driving the ability to wrap analyses into single, containerised jobs to retrieve analytical results needed for further scientific evaluation.
We hope that in the future iPOP Study data will be accessible in a federated fashion via the ICODA Workbench subject to a data access request and joining the iPOP Study consortium as an approved, accredited researcher. ICODA works collaboratively to improve the efficiency of accessing data, by reducing the complexity of data sharing arrangements and increasing harmonisation, while also ensuring that data is kept secure, with robust governance and authorised analysis. ICODA operates according to the FAIR data framework, helping to ensure that data is findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable.

Professor of Informatics at Swansea University and SeRP Director, Professor David Ford, said,
“To develop a technology that’s flexible, adaptable and powerful enough to work with diverse data, international data providers and the global scientific community has been our goal at SeRP from the outset. We’re delighted that SeRP, and indeed SAIL as a long-term tenant of SeRP, has now matured sufficiently to offer tangible benefits to ICODA’s driver projects initiative and bring about positive change to health outcomes around the world.”

Further in-depth detail of the methods and technology behind the project are to be published in a research paper in the coming months.