Data linkage for research in Scotland

Data linkage allows for the true value of our existing data to be realised.

Scottish Government funded linkage projects

The Scottish Government is committed to improving Scotland’s future through the production of high quality data, analysis and evidence to inform policy and support improved service delivery. One approach we are taking to achieving this is through data linkage; Joined Up Data for Better Decisions outlines our strategy for better use of data that already exists in Scotland including the establishment of a Data Linkage Framework, with the Guiding Principles for Data Linkage  supporting the creation of a culture where legal, ethical and secure data linkage is accepted and expected.

In collaboration with our public sector partners, the Scottish Government has developed a process to enable responsible, efficient and effective data linkage in line with the Data Linkage Framework.

Data linkage projects provide a proportionate balance between privacy, mitigating the risk of identification, and realising the public benefits. To help data controllers make decisions about granting access to their data, data linkage projects must be reviewed by a Public Benefits and Privacy Panel and an Ethics Panel. These panels provide objective advice to make sure all consideration has been given to protect individuals, whilst making sure that the potential research is in the interests of the public and that it is of value to society.

Data linkage projects must demonstrate public benefit and the ethical and secure use of data in addition to demonstrating the data is processed lawfully in line with the data protection legislation. This means that an organisation must have a legal power to share the data. If an organisation exceeds its legal powers or exercises those powers improperly then it will be unlawful. Data linkage proposals must identify the ‘legal gateway’ being used to share the necessary data to undertake the research project. 

The process flow to apply for and complete a Scottish Government funded linkage project can be seen below. Advice and assistance with completing these is provided by eDRIS and the) Scottish Government Data Sharing and Linkage Unit Where possible these forms and documents have been aligned to make sure that information provided is transferable throughout the process and that they comply with the Data Protection Act Legislation and the Guiding Principles for Data Linkage.

Data linkage application process

1. Application Process

(i) Secure funding for your research. The Scottish Government and wider public sector invite applications to support data linkage projects that are in the public interest. To apply for Scottish Government funding, complete the application form below and submit to the Analytical Leadership Group for approval. The SG and eDRIS can provide advice and support with filling in the application form.

(ii) As part of the process, applicants are also asked to submit a draft Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA). Completing an assessment early in a project can identify and mitigate risks to privacy, and identify the ways an organisation or project can effectively comply with data protection regulations. It should be updated throughout the project as and when issues are raised.

The Information Commissoner's Office have published guidance on privacy by design.

Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) a data protection impact assessment (DPIA) is required for all high risk processing, including data linkage, and is recommended as good practice for low-medium risk processing.

2. Approvals process

(i) You must secure permission to access all the data that you require. This may involve approaching several data controllers who will all assess your project as a whole and the specific uses of the data that they hold.

To access Scottish Government data for linkage purposes, you must apply to the Statistics Public Benefit and Privacy Panel.

If you require health data held by the NHS, you must apply to the Health Public Benefit and Privacy Panel. This panel operates independently to the Statistics Panel. eDRIS provide support to researchers applying to both panels.

Other data controllers, for example Local Authorities and GP practices, will have their own processes for requesting access to data.

(ii) Depending upon what data is being used in a linkage project and where this data is held will identify which Ethics Panel should be approached to review a linkage project. Often data controllers will ask for proof of ethical approval before agreeing data access. If a linkage project involves the use of health data, a Health Ethics Panel should be used. eDRIS can support researchers to identify and apply to the correct panel. Similarly, each University has its own Ethics Panel that should be used when academics are leading a study that does not involve health data. For linkage projects that do not involve health data and are not led by an academic, the UK Statistics Authority have established a Statistics Ethics Panel. The Data Sharing and Linkage Unit can provide support to statisticians applying to this panel.

3. Documentation

(i) Before a data controller can share data, a Data Sharing Agreement needs to be written and signed by the data controller and the researcher. You will need a separate Data Sharing Agreement for each data controller. This is an agreement that clearly details roles and responsibilities to ensure that the project is legal and secure. The Data Sharing Agreement is usually drafted by the relevant data controller.

(ii) If the project requires a third party for linkage or to provide separation of functions then a Data Processing Agreement will need to be signed between the parties clearly detailing what is required of each party.

4. Indexing and linkage

National Records of Scotland can provide a service as a trusted third party indexing or linking agent, supporting a separation of functions and are also able to use their indexing spine to help improve linkage rates and data quality. eDRIS can also provide a service as a trusted third party linking agent.

5. Accessing linked data

Following the removal of personal identifiers ('pseudoanonymisation'), linked data must be stored in a secure environment and can only be accessed by an approved researcher(s). eDRIS manages Scotland's National Safe Haven, located at the Edinburgh BioQuarter, where linked data can be hosted to allow for access and analysis by researchers to be controlled and monitored. Depending on the privacy risks involved in a project, it may be possible to arrange remote access to the National Safe Haven. A number of 'local' Safe Havens are also available across Scotland to host data in a secure and controlled environment. Most 'local' Safe Havens are hosted and managed by NHS Scotland Boards or through an NHS Scotland-academic collaboration.

Data can only be removed from a Safe Haven (and subsequently published), once all necessary measures have been undertaken to limit the possibility of identifying an individual within the linked data outputs. If there is any possibility that an individual may be identified in the outputs, the appropriate statistical disclosure control methods must be applied to the data before it is published. eDRIS can provide a disclosure control service if required.

6. Enquiries

For further information you can contact the Data for Research Unit by emailing

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