The SafePod Network: Levelling up access to data across the UK
Category: Office for National Statistics
4 March 2022
In this blog Darren Lightfoot, SafePod Network Manager, reflects on the six-month anniversary of the SafePod Network.
Introduction to the SafePod Network
The SafePod Network launched in September 2021 to provide researchers with new facilities (known as SafePods) across the UK for data that requires secure access for research. The network is a world-first service providing the infrastructure and necessary security to help significantly improve the quantity and diversity of public benefit research, and to widen the sharing of data for this purpose. SafePods are primarily based at universities in the UK.
At our launch in September 2021, we had five operational SafePods available across the UK. We are now up to 10 and expect to have around 20 SafePods available by the end of the year.
What is a SafePod?
A SafePod is a small room that provides the security and controls to enable data that requires secure access to be used by researchers for their research. A SafePod includes a door control access system, Closed Circuit Television (CCTV), a researcher area for data analysis and a secure IT cupboard for the storage of SafePod Network services.
We have also designed SafePods so that they are comfortable to work in for long periods of time and include a height adjustable desk. They also have fire and emergency alarms and are wheelchair accessible.
What data will be available through the SafePod Network?
From launch, we have made a wealth of government datasets, as well as study and survey datasets available for research from SafePods. This includes new linked datasets created by ADR UK projects, such as the groundbreaking Data First programme led by the Ministry of Justice, and the majority of datasets held by the Office for National Statistics Secure Research Service, the UK Data Service Secure Lab and the Secure Anonymised Information Linkage (SAIL) Databank.
In most cases no data needs to be held inside a SafePod, and instead access is provided by secure remote connection from a SafePod to the data holding organisation’s computer system. We are also actively working with other organisations in the UK to provide access to their data through the network.
Why was the SafePod Network developed?
The SafePod Network was developed to significantly improve access to data for research in the following ways:
To provide researchers with local access to data from their university, making it far easier for them to access data for important research.
For the first time, SafePods provide access to many different organisations' data from the same location.
To provide organisations with a ready made and simple solution to share their data more widely for research.
To provide a central point from which researchers can find out how to access different datasets for research.
What’s new about it?
In creating a distributed national network of SafePods, we are significantly expanding the opportunities for approved researchers to work with data that requires secure access. In doing so, it also provides a natural extension to the access points currently available from some of the major organisations that provide data for research in the UK.
How is the SafePod Network secure?
Security is paramount for data access from a SafePod. There are four main principles that underpin the network:
Safe researcher: A researcher must abide by policies and pass a training questionnaire before they can book and use SafePods.
Safe access: A local SafePod Coordinator manages their SafePod in line with network procedures. SafePod Coordinators are background checked and must pass a training questionnaire.
Safe data: A hardened IT system stored securely in a SafePod provides connection over a virtual private network (VPN) for a researcher to remotely access their project data from a SafePod.
- Safe analysis: A SafePod provides a dedicated area for a researcher to analyse and work on their project data. The area is door access controlled and contains a CCTV system.
All SafePods are operated and managed under the same procedures.
How do you book a SafePod?
To book and use a SafePod, a researcher must first have an approved project in place with an organisation that has joined the network. The researcher can then register and must pass a training questionnaire on network policies and procedures before a booking can be made.
Registered researchers can request to book a SafePod via the SafePod Network website. Once approved by the relevant organisation that holds the data, a confirmation email is sent to the researcher and the organisation that hosts the SafePod. A researcher can then attend the SafePod on their booking date. On arrival the researcher will be asked to complete some security checks with the local SafePod Coordinator before they access and use the SafePod.
What has happened so far?
We have come a long way in the last six months from the launch of the new service, supporting researchers to access and use SafePods and working with more organisations to provide access to their data through the network. I am also delighted to say that each month we are increasing the number of researchers registering with the network and the booking of SafePods.
Also, I am pleased to announce that the SafePod Network will be participating in the International Population Data Linkage Network conference later this year and demonstrating some of our services to improve access to data.
How do I find out more?
Further information is available from the SafePod Network website.
The SafePod Network is part of the ADR UK programme which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, part of UKRI. “SafePod” is a registered trademark of the University of St Andrews.