Making sensitive data accessible yet secure is academic

Academic organisations are using online collaboration tools to gather feedback and edit documents for projects spanning a network of universities.

The Administrative Data Research Network (ADRN) has centres in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to provide secure environments for researchers to access de-identified data gathered by the government. This information covers everything from tax data to mortality records to police force crime records.

The Network does not hold administrative data. It works closely with government departments to make data available to researchers and this is negotiated on a case by case basis. Researchers must go through a stringent application process before any information is handed over.

Ilse Verwulgen, communications and public engagement officer of the Administrative Data Service at the University of Essex, said: “We help researchers get access to that information so they can do their research and ultimately make society better.”

The ADRN uses collaboration tools from software house Clinked so its support staff can easily find and manage policy and procedure documents and ensure their compatibility across more than 20 universities in the UK’s four countries.

Verwulgen said: “[The universities] each have their own security standards and access issues. We need to collaborate to bring together policies for documentation within the network.”

Verwulgen added: “We needed something that was easily accessible, that we could easily manage and easily track any changes or comments made to a document through a record of discussions.”

The collaboration software gives staff a base to get feedback on their work and also gives them access to the latest version of a document through a central store. It also allows certain user groups to access their own online space where they can hold specialist discussion groups and collaborate on specific documents appropriate to their individual department’s work.

It also cuts down on the red tape to give the Network staff easy access to the documentation they need to carry out their work. Before using collaboration software, the staff relied on emails and an inaccessible third party SharePoint to access information, which proved to be highly time inefficient and an unfriendly experience for the user.

Verwulgen added: “Through Clinked we just organised the access ourselves. It was easy. You just send someone an email with a link, they sign up and they instantly have access [to the collaboration portal].”

A dedicated online collaboration portal is also a secure option for the ADRN’s work. Tayfun Bilsel, CEO of Clinked, said: "Our collaboration software provides another layer of security. It is a registered Crown Commercial Service supplier to provide our services to the UK public sector, is fully compliant with US federal government customer requirements and certified on many levels.”

Bilsel added: “It also gives users the ability to see who has done what to every piece of documentation through our comprehensive audit trails and activity streams."

This careful balancing act of accessibility and security is a must for the ADRN, as Verwulgen added: “We have found a way to bring discussions together to make life a lot easier and also maintain a secure system for these discussions and our documentation.”

Gemma Church is a UK-based freelance technology writer

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