Man at a computer analysing data

The UK needs a new culture of data sharing

Alison Pritchard, Deputy National Statistician at the Office for National Statistics (ONS), discusses the future of secure data sharing for the UK, as the ONS leads the development of a new data service.

Throughout the Covid-19 Pandemic, data has played a critically important role, enabling the government, researchers, and public service providers to make informed decisions on how the country responds and fights back against Covid-19.

From monitoring infections in the community with the Covid-19 Infection Survey; to tracking emerging patterns by linking together data from census, hospital episodes and vaccination records; and establishing movement trends among the population with anonymised location data from mobile devices; ONS surveys and the analysing of shared data sources has played a pivotal role in the government’s response to the pandemic.

However, data and data sharing, requires a great deal of governance, management, stewardship, and public trust to ensure we can get the best results from what is already available. It also requires state of the art infrastructure, allowing it to be securely shared across systems. Up until now government researchers and analysts have largely accessed data in silo, with no way of linking multiple data sources to enable deeper analysis.

I’m pleased to say that this will soon be a thing of the past, and that the government is looking towards a new future of anonymised data sharing for the UK, with the implementation of the new Integrated Data Service (IDS).

The Integrated Data Service will deliver a step change in the way data is shared and accessed across government, ensuring more data driven policy decisions for the public. Using a secure, multi-cloud environment the service will make a huge variety of ready-to-use data from across government and beyond accessible to approved analysts. The service will allow more detailed research to be delivered at pace and provide policy-makers with the best possible evidence to make vital decisions for the good of the citizen, whilst continuing to protect their personal information.

In addition to being better equipped to identify where funding is needed and improve vital services, the IDS will provide a powerful tool for collaboration across government, which can also be used to find new solutions for big challenges that affect us all, such as emerging diseases and climate change.

Of course, the idea of sharing data to maximise impact isn’t new to us at the ONS; we’ve been doing this for some time through our well-respected Secure Research Service which has been securely providing a variety of de-identified data to accredited researchers for over 15 years. It’s this experience and trusted expertise that means the ONS is operating as the lead delivery partner for IDS and collaborating with partners across government.

The IDS is the next step in the data sharing journey, where, for the first time ever, government will have the ability to link data at source – in a safe and secure environment - rather than moving data around which currently creates friction and significant cost. The service will allow us to expand our data sharing capability whilst retaining its security and the public’s right to privacy. No personal information will be available through the service.

In a nutshell, less time sourcing data sets and making them compatible with each other means more time for vital research and collaboration with real potential to vastly improve our lives.

We recently launched our test version of the new service, which will provide the building blocks to achieving net zero and regional growth across the country. We’re opening the door to wider collaboration across government and bringing together multi-disciplinary teams to achieve insights that will lead to better outcomes for the citizen.

This is the start of a new age in data sharing for government, and I look forward to seeing the improved value and benefit the IDS can offer to colleagues across the public sector.

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