As cases of Covid-19 increased in the UK, access to timely data was, and continues to be, a fundamental part of understanding and tackling the virus for those working within policy and research.
The world-leading SAIL Databank (Secure Anonymised Information Linkage), housed in Population Data Science at Swansea University, has been a vital source of intelligence for many sectors, while also informing the One Wales national response to Covid-19 in Wales.
The databank has seen a surge in demand from researchers, data scientists and public health professionals keen to access the anonymised health and administrative data held within the SAIL Databank to help determine the effects of the pandemic on the population.
Responding to these data requests is a team led by Cynthia McNerney, Head of Data Acquisition and Provisioning. In addition to facilitating the requests for data access, the team works closely with SAIL technical teams and data providers to acquire new and refreshed data while also overseeing the thorough governance processes central to working with the SAIL Databank.
This team works side by side with SAIL Databank’s Information Governance Review Panel (IGRP), an independent panel made up of a range of independent experts as well as members of the public who review all requests to access data held within SAIL. This panel reviews the proposals to ensure they comply with information governance principles and represent an appropriate use of data in the public interest.
When Covid-19 cases began to spike, the IGRP saw a sharp and sustained increase in demand for data access with a significantly shorter amount of time to turn around applications.
Dr Corinne Scott, IGRP Chair, said: “The panel has never been so busy. With the onset of the pandemic, there was a real sense of urgency that research needed to take place to inform population-level understanding and planning for Covid-19.
“Despite the personal commitments and workload associated with the lockdown measures, our team was still able to respond and keep pace with the applications pouring in. There was an increase in demand and for a speedier assessment of the applications, and I am proud that the integrity of the applications, scrutiny and quality of work being approved was never compromised. It was a challenge that we were happy to meet.”
The rapid response nature of the research undertaken often meant that applications to SAIL were reviewed within 48 hours, a process that normally takes several weeks to complete.
“Robust governance processes are fundamental to everything we do, and the role of the IGRP is invaluable. Without it, SAIL couldn’t facilitate data access, and this important research couldn’t take place,” said Cynthia McNerney, who manages the governance review process.
“Despite all the challenges we have faced with increased data requests, workload and the rapid turnaround required, the support of the IGRP has enabled us to facilitate rapid access to data while adhering to the principles and processes which underpin its operating model.”
Cynthia and her team also played an instrumental role in bringing key new data sources into SAIL—19 new datasets to date—as well as improving the cadence of existing data sets. This has provided researchers with access to data that has benefitted from daily or weekly refreshes rather than monthly or quarterly.
The SAIL Databank has received more than 180 enquiries, many of them from new users, to work on Covid-19 research with a number of requests directly informing the Welsh Government’s TAG (Technical Advisory Group) and the UK’s SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) to help guide public health measures taken through the lockdown.
“With the influx of new users of the SAIL Databank paired with the importance of learning more about the spread of Covid-19, we have seen the range of uses in SAIL broadened. There are more diverse analyses now taking place than ever before,” Cynthia McNerney added.
With the most recent lockdown happening across Wales, the SAIL Databank will continue to play a pivotal role in helping to inform policy. The SAIL Databank is joined by HDR UK, ADR Wales, ADP, BREATHE, Welsh Government, Public Health Wales and NHS Wales Informatics Service (NWIS) to make up the One Wales team.
BY CATE BATCHELDER , SWANSEA UNIVERSITY