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ONS creates Secure Research Service to draw on schoolchildren’s database


Mark Say Managing Editor

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The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has set up a Secure Research Service (SRS) for accredited researchers to access data from the National Pupil Database (NPD).

But an organisation that has been critical of its previous arrangements has maintained some criticisms that it could be open to abuse.

The SRS provides a route to data for researchers working on projects that have been defined and approved to support the public good, enabling then to use relevant data from their desks if they work for government, or in an ONS safe setting if they work for another party.

The safe settings have been created at offices in London, Newport, Titchfield, Belfast and Glasgow.

It includes business survey data, earnings data, census sample microdata and social surveys, with a number of PND de-identified ‘standard extracts’ now available on the service.

Data cannot be downloaded from the SRS, and ONS said its procedures ensure it operates within a legal framework and the procedures ensure it does not disclose sensitive information.

It has set up a procedure for researchers to obtain the necessary accreditation, but also indicated that there are conditions under which researchers might be able to use alternative methods of data sharing.

These include if the data is being processed to fulfil an essential public task, if they are doing work funded by the DfE or other government departments, and if they had approval from the DfE before 1 June 2018. It also applies if they want to re-use data held by the requesting organisation and within the existing licensing period.

Support with caveats

The move has won the support, but with strong caveats, of the defenddigitalme group, which campaigns for children’s data privacy and digital rights.

It said: “This is a huge step forward towards making data safe access for all pupil, and learner, and workforce data. It has been our key ask since we were founded, central to our work and our top line change required, in the State of Data Report 2018 earlier this year.”

But it added that there is scope for researchers to work around the safeguards by meeting the list of conditions for an alternative approach, and pointed out there are plenty of data sharing agreements between the DfE and third parties in place.

The group also pointed to the lack of an audit trail, clear register of data distribution or a way for people to know who has obtained their data and why.

“We still need DfE to get some meaningful fairness and transparency into the process, so pupils and parents know where their data goes,” it said.

It added that the DfE has further developments in the pipeline, including an online application process and more readily available standard extracts based on the most requested data. It also plans to produce publicly available synthetic data to help test and plan research.

Image from US Dept for Education, CC BY 2.0 through flickr


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