Making the connection - part 2

A number of important issues must be resolved before data linkage becomes a regular part of the process of developing data for research purposes. These include:

  • Maintaining security, preventing abuse of linked data
    The personal nature of many of the types of data which constitute our digital footprint means that they could be misused in some way if they fall into the wrong hands. However, researchers require access to these data at a very detailed level if they are to be able to link them together and to understand their value as research resources. Careful controls over the conditions of access must be put in place to ensure that the data concerned are not used for inappropriate purposes or by unauthorised persons.
  • The need for consent to link data
    For some categories of data and in some situations, legal and ethical considerations require that the individuals or organisations whose data are to be linked in some way should consent to this process. There is a need for clarification of this requirement and harmonisation of best practice in this area.
  • Assessing the quality of linked data resources for specific research purposes
    It is often assumed that data from administrative sources give an error free, accurate record of the process from which they are drawn. This may not be the case. Given that such data are not designed for research purposes, their fitness for purpose as research resources must be carefully assessed.
  • Gaining access to and use of data which may have commercial value
    Certain types of electronic records have significant commercial value. A good example is the loyalty card data generated by shoppers. Organisations may be reluctant to make such data available for research if they feel that this value may be exploited by competitors.

These are not easy issues to resolve. There has already been some progress on laying the foundations for what looks set to become a major new approach to data construction in the social and economic sciences. The ESRC has funded the Administrative Data Liaison Service and the Secure Data Service. The former service, managed by the University of St Andrews in conjunction with the Universities of Oxford and Manchester, houses and makes accessible to researchers a lot of information about the wide range of administrative data sources which are potentially available in the UK for research. The latter, which forms part of the ESRC-funded UK Data Archive at the University of Essex, provides a secure environment for data linkage and analysis, with remote access from UK universities.

Government departments and some private sector organisations have developed protocols that are designed to protect confidentiality and prevent inappropriate use of data in their safekeeping. However, there is, as yet, no systematic cross-departmental approach to issues such as the situations in which consent is required for data linkage, the procedures through which researchers may gain access and the requirements placed on researchers that will ensure that data security is maintained.

For this reason, the ESRC has initiated an Administrative Data Task Force (ADT), bringing together funders, the academic community, and key data custodians including government departments. The task force is designed to address these issues across a range of administrative data types which have potential research value when linked to other sources of information. Chaired by Sir Alan Langlands (Chief Executive, HEFCE) and with strong support across government, the ADT aims to make rapid progress to resolve the issues in ways which will help promote their safe and efficient use for research. A particular concern shared by all those organisations that hold personal data is that the public should be confident that their information is held securely, used appropriately and that no harm should ever arise from misuse of their data in any way.

This cross-departmental and cross-funding agency activity should be seen as the very beginning of the ways in which these new forms of digital information will change the landscape of social and economic research. While no-one is predicting that the traditional approaches to data collection will disappear, innovative use of the many new types of data that we create will be high on the research agenda over coming years.

From the ESRC magazine Society Now

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