Access to Data: Challenges and Solutions

3 March 2024


Access to Data: Challenges and Solutions

Reported by Shervin MirzaeiGhazi, CSaP Policy Intern (Jan - April 2024)

Frank Kelly, Emeritus Professor of the Mathematics of Systems, University of Cambridge, presented at the CSaP online seminar series on the theme of 'Data for Policy Making: challenges and opportunities'.

Professor Kelly emphasised the importance of free access to data that can influence different sectors such as public transport and healthcare. the fact that we observe capital accumulation by major companies demonstrates the significant benefits of accessing and using data.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided yet another example of how access to data sources can promote the public good. Professor Kelly presented a summary of the common lessons that has been learned from different areas for data sharing at the 'US-UK Scientific Forum Researcher Access to Data' hosted by the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society Washington in 2023. Professor Kelly explained how this gathering of researchers explored how access to data had changed, lessons from large-scale health data initiatives, and how to develop and incorporate best practices when it came accessing data.

Challenges and Solutions

Sharing data raises many issues, such as the enormous size of datasets that cannot easily be transported. In other words, data cannot be sent to the researcher, so the researcher must go to the data. Another issue arises from the sensitivity of certain data, which can limit free access. However, Professor Kelly, emphasised that all of these technical problems have technical solutions. For example, programs like ‘openSAFELY’ have been developed to analyse data at the source meaning that it does not need to be provided directly to the researcher. This method also creates a safer platform for data analysis as there is no need for sensitive data to be downloaded and saved by a range of different actors.

Opening-up data

Professor Kelly’s talk prompted a lively Q&A with the audience. Attendants questioned how big companies or foreign states can be encouraged to share their data for humanitarian reasons. Professor Kelly admitted that there is no simple solution here, but he argued that societal regulation and key data institutions will play an important role in incentivising private companies and nation states to facilitate better access to data.

Participants observed that workforce constraints make it increasingly difficult to deal with the sheer amount of data. In response, Professor Kelly emphasised the importance of making data accessible as this will facilitate more individuals and groups around the world to work with the same data, thereby alleviating the burden. A related question focused on quality control and asked what checks were in place to make sure that those handling data were qualified to do so. In response, Professor Kelly mentioned that there are ways of fighting misinformation that do not suppress data sharing and that there is always a possibility for revision of noises (inaccurate or low-quality works). Societal trust in more reputable institutes can be a major factor here.

Image by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

Shervin MirzaeiGhazi

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge