John Swinney: Research Data Scotland will harness power of public sector datasets

If we have learned one thing from the past 18 months, as we grappled with the many challenges of Covid-19, it is that nothing is solved in a neat compartment.

Picture: TSPL

The urgency of the pandemic forced us to think differently to ensure that the many services we rely on could adapt and continue to work at pace, resulting in more efficient ways of working across the public, private and third sectors.

Data has been key to effective decision-making throughout the pandemic. Scotland has a wealth of public sector data but traditionally it has been locked away in lots of individual systems, across multiple organisations, in formats that are difficult to access or compare.

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That’s why we established a data taskforce in June 2020 to support organisations with evidence-based policy and operational decisions in relation to Covid-19.

The taskforce – which subsequently became the Scottish Covid-19 Intelligence Network – brought key datasets on Covid testing and vaccinations together with vital events, hospital care, the 2011 census and schools, in a secure environment to support collaborative research and decision-making.

Research Data Scotland (RDS) has now been established to cement this approach. A Programme for Government commitment, its mission is to improve the health, economic, social and environmental wellbeing of Scotland, and attract investment into the country by creating a supportive environment for ethical and secure data-driven research.

As a collaboration between the Scottish Government, public bodies, and Scotland’s leading academic institutions, RDS brings together expertise, resource and capabilities from a range of existing data-led programmes across the public sector to help make data-driven research in the public good easier – with a commitment to always handle data legally, ensuring privacy is maintained and that research is carried out transparently.

Better connections between organisations and the data they hold will be instrumental to finding innovative solutions for issues such as sustainable employment, financial security for families and low-income households, and the wellbeing and mental health of children and young people.

Importantly, it will also inform ongoing work to ensure public services are person-centred – in other words, that they are carefully targeted at the individuals they are intended to support.

Linked data research is already illustrating the practical benefits of this. RDS evaluation of a pilot project led by NHS Fife and charity Shelter Scotland to co-ordinate health and housing services for patients admitted to hospital found it reduced the number of people being discharged with no fixed address or into street homelessness, and resulted in better use of healthcare resources, with an average cost saving of £2,422 per person.

That is just one example of the many initiatives under way right now being supported by RDS’s researcher support service, which is there to guide people and organisations through what data is available and the information governance needed to access it.

The pandemic has shown us the benefits of doing data right, doing data together, and doing data better. Faster analysis and evidence-gathering to support decision-making means better outcomes can be delivered more quickly.

Now more than ever it is vital we maintain this momentum to deliver a fair and sustainable recovery for the people of Scotland.