Researchers are set to benefit from a new digital service that will give them ‘faster and simpler’ access to Scottish public sector data.

The Researcher Access Service is a ‘streamlined end-to-end platform for researchers accessing secure data’ – enabling academics and data users to conduct research for the ‘public good’.

Initially, the service – launched by Research Data Scotland – will be limited to nine of Public Health Scotland’s most frequently requested datasets. But in time it will be expanded through discussions with other data controllers, in fields spanning education, social work and justice.

The service is designed to overcome certain problems with data sources. For example, data is often restricted to individual systems across different organisations and is not in a format that makes access or integration easy.

As a result, accessing the data researchers need can be a complex and lengthy process, leading to missed opportunities in research or creating and improving policy. 

Tom Arthur, minister for community wealth and public finance, said: “The Researcher Access Service is an important step towards the modernisation and improvement of our data access and linkage capabilities in Scotland by ensuring there is a timely and managed process from when researchers apply for data to when they can access data.  

“This service is pioneering an end-to-end digital process for researchers and data users to access secure data for public good and I would like to congratulate all those whose hard work went into this launch.”  

Researchers from ‘approved organisations’ can apply to use one or more of the nine PHS datasets, which are some of the most widely used health datasets for use in research, including hospital admissions, prescribing, emergency attendances and births.

Approved organisations are currently limited to UK-based public sector organisations, namely, select universities, the NHS, local authorities and the Scottish Government. Researchers from other organisations, including commercial and industry, can partner with an approved institution or the electronic Data Research and Innovation Service (eDRIS) team for analyses to be carried out on their behalf.

Created and managed collaboratively with eDRIS, which is part of Public Health Scotland and one of RDS’s founding partners, the Researcher Access Service has been designed around the needs of researchers and data users.

One clear benefit is the introduction of the first fully digital platform for requesting access to datasets in the Scottish National Safe Haven, hosted by the University of Edinburgh, enabling researchers to submit and track their application from start to finish via an online portal.

To help test the system, RDS created the Accelerator Awards and funded around £50,000 to three projects and gave them exclusive access to the platform. These projects will use the new Researcher Access Service to link Public Health Scotland datasets for their research.

Professor Roger Halliday, CEO of RDS, said: “To be innovative and meet today’s challenges, the public sector needs evidence from across a multitude of sectors to help inform decision-making.  

“I’m delighted to mark the first release of the Researcher Access Service, which will make it quicker and simpler to provide streamlined, lawful, fair, and safe access to data at pace for the public good.”