June 3, 2024

The 2023 DARE UK Driver Projects: Summaries and lessons learned

This report summarises the outcomes and lessons learned in the delivery of the five DARE UK Phase 1 Driver Projects. The projects, building on earlier work, developed innovations and standards for a cohesive network of trusted research environments.

From July 2021 to March 2024, Phase 1 of the DARE UK programme set out to tackle key challenges in the UK sensitive data research landscape. Through a series of exploratory projects and consultations with the data research community and the public, DARE UK has taken significant steps towards achieving its vision – to deliver a more joined-up, efficient UK data research infrastructure for public benefit.  

One such step was the recently completed DARE UK Driver Projects, which ran from February to October 2023. The five projects built on the work of nine earlier Sprint Exemplar Projects, delivered from January to August 2022, which tested early thinking and uncovered potential solutions to data linkage and access barriers in interdisciplinary research. The Driver Projects, guided by the Five Safes framework, took these insights further to inform various aspects of designing and delivering a UK-wide network of Trusted Research Environments (TREs) for sensitive data research. 

Safe data 

  • SARA (Semi-Automated Risk Assessment of Data Provenance and Clinical Free-text in Trusted Research Environments): Led by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, SARA focused on semi-automated risk assessment of data provenance (a documented data trail from its origin to where it has moved to and where it is presently) and clinical free-text (e.g., GP records), within trusted research environments, improving data reliability and accessibility. The project developed innovative methods that help to identify indirect privacy risks and improve data provenance tracking, bolstering data security and integrity. 

Safe outputs  

  • SACRO (Semi-Automated Checking of Research Outputs): Led by researchers at the University of the West of England, SACRO aimed to implement semi-automated checks on research outputs, ensuring research outcomes protect individual privacy while easing the manual burden on TRE staff. The project created a statistical framework and the ‘ACRO’ engine (a software framework that provides a guide and set of tools for researchers and output checkers) to automate disclosure risk checks, significantly reducing the need for manual inspection. 

Safe projects 

  • TRE-FX: Delivering a federated network of trusted research environments to enable safe data analytics): Led by researchers at the University of Manchester, TRE-FX aimed to develop a mechanism to conduct federated analysis across a network of TREs to facilitate secure data analytics while ensuring data privacy and integrity. The project developed a modular architecture and Application Programming Interface (API) standards to enable seamless collaboration between TREs within a network without the need to transfer sensitive data. 
  • TELEPORT: Connecting researchers to big data at light speed): Led by researchers at the University of Swansea, TELEPORT explored innovative solutions to connect researchers with vast datasets swiftly, enabling parallel access to data housed in multiple physically separated environments. The project demonstrated the feasibility of integrating data from multiple TREs while maintaining governance control through “pop-up” TREs, enhancing data accessibility and usability. 

Safe settings 

  • SATRE (Standardised Architecture for Trusted Research Environments): Led by researchers at the University of Dundee, SATRE focused on establishing a standard specification, or TRE definition, as one of the foundations for a cohesive and interoperable network of TREs, ensuring consistency and security. The project delivered the SATRE specification, outlining essential capabilities and principles for TREs and setting a standard for future developments. 

Reflections and learnings

The outcomes of the Driver Projects provided valuable insights and reflections. From the eager engagement of the UK research community to the effectiveness of sprint-style project portfolios, the lessons learned offer a roadmap for ongoing and future efforts. Dedicated resources, community-led collaborations, and a robust public involvement and engagement strategy have emerged as critical components for success, among other key learnings. 

  • Community demand: There is a strong demand from the research community for advanced TRE capabilities to support innovative and impactful scientific research. 
  • Project portfolios: Sprint-style projects are effective for early-stage conceptualisation and prototyping. However, maturing these capabilities for real-world application requires longer-term and more sustained efforts. 
  • Collaboration: Continuous support for community-driven collaborations and idea development is crucial. The combination of broad consortia and direct support from DARE UK has been effective in fostering these collaborations. 
  • Public involvement and engagement (PIE): Delivering high-quality PIE is challenging but essential. A coordinated approach across programme and project activities is necessary to achieve a coherent PIE strategy (more details in our PIE evaluation report). 

Looking forward

The DARE UK Phase 1 Driver Projects have showcased the potential of a more standardised, connected, and automated federation of TREs. As DARE UK moves into its next phase, the focus will be on building upon these outputs through various community-driven initiatives. The learnings and outcomes from these initiatives will also inform the design of the next version of the DARE UK Federated Architecture Blueprint. 

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Learn more about the DARE UK Driver Projects and read their final reports