Sharing and reusing data makes for excellent research

As it adds UCAS records to the data it makes available to researchers, ONS' Peter Stokes discusses how reusing data and making it available can boost its benefit to society.

What do improved home security guidance and a tool that advises clinicians about the best treatments for breast cancer have in common?

Besides having a benefit to people across the UK and beyond, both innovations are the result of university research projects that reused existing data made available to researchers across the country through the ONS Secure Research Service.

More data, more often

The idea of collecting once but using many times might sound like common sense but, unfortunately, it’s not the norm. Just as it can be difficult to foster collaboration across organisations, disciplines and even university departments, it can also be difficult to break down data silos. Large amounts of data that could be shared or brought together to help us better understand our society often remain in one place, used for one project only.

I firmly believe that more data should be shared across organisations, and not just because it provides our ONS statisticians with richer data sets through which they can get a clearer view of what’s happening in our society. There are multiple projects and researchers out there with a need for new and varied data; data that not only shines a light on emerging issues and societal challenges but enables the discovery of solutions to these challenges.

With all of this in mind, we’re making more and more de-identified data available securely, and encouraging others to do so. By making de-identified data securely available to accredited researchers it can be used in multiple research projects, have far-reaching impact and even bring organisations together to work on the big challenges of the day.

What’s available?

One data set can have multiple benefits in multiple areas. The Labour Force Survey (LFS) – our data on employment circumstances of the UK population – has been used by researchers across the country to very different ends.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham used LFS data to reveal that non-custodial sentences can be an effective alternative to custody when it comes to reducing property crime. Leeds University used the same data to examine whether better public transport helps people to get jobs, while a research economist at the Bank of England, used job vacancies to understand the effects of labour market mismatch on UK output and productivity.

One of our latest offerings through the Secure Research Service is UCAS data on university applications from 2007 to 2019. Each year, the data contain on average details of 3 million applications to UK Higher Education Institutions for around 700,000 people. This rich data set can be used to look at patterns in the demand for higher education, uptake of courses and subjects studied.

How it is used

Our last Research Excellence Awards illustrate just how wide-ranging the impact of data sharing can be. Last year’s winner, Professor Andromachi Tseloni, of Nottingham Trent University, used some of our data to determine that homes with stand-alone security features, such as security chains or CCTV, are three times more protected against burglary than homes without, while burglar alarms increase risk of burglary.

Moving from security to social science, another of the nominees used our data to look at the effects of ethnically segregated neighbourhoods on people’s lives. Using data spanning five decades, PhD student Carolina V. Zuccotti, from the European University Institute, looked at the long-term drivers and effects of ethnic segregation in England and Wales. Among its findings was the discovery that Pakistani and Bangladeshi women raised in areas with people from the same ethnic background were less likely to be in employment and to avoid a low status occupation.

Moving on to health, Erik Lenguerrand, from the University of Bristol, used our data, combined with data from the National Joint Registry, to discover that the current “gold standard” for treatment of infected prostheses, which involves two operations, may not be any more effective than a method which involves just one.

Predict – an online tool developed by a team of Cambridge-based clinicians and scientists – which won the People’s Choice category at our 2018 awards, has helped almost 1,000,000 doctors and patients worldwide decide whether chemotherapy should be prescribed and is the only breast cancer prognosis and treatment benefit model currently endorsed by the American Joint Committee on Cancer.

Research with this kind of impact often takes many years and large amounts of funding; by making existing data available for it, we can help to cut down cost, time, and duplication of effort. We can also inspire and facilitate research that might not have been carried out and support rapid policy analysis, including research to inform the Covid-19 pandemic.

To learn more about the Secure Research Service and how you can access a wealth of data for research, visit the secure research service pages on the ONS website.

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