December 15, 2023

SACRO: Pioneering innovations in data privacy and research efficiency

In the first issue of our DARE UK Driver Projects blog series, we discuss the exploits of the SACRO project in ensuring that research findings do not compromise individual privacy. Find out more about the project’s final outputs and their collaboration with members of the public in this piece.

Semi-Automated Checking of Research Outputs (SACRO) is one of the five DARE UK Phase 1 Driver Projects funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) after an open call for proposals between October and December 2022. Over a nine-month period, from February to October 2023, the DARE UK Driver Projects investigated the requirements of what will be a UK-wide network of Trusted Research Environments (TREs) in line with the DARE UK vision.

The SACRO project, led by researchers at the University of the West of England, was funded to address a significant bottleneck in the research process – Output Statistical Disclosure Control (OSDC). This is a critical stage in data-driven research to provide assurance that the way researchers describe their findings does not compromise individual privacy. This process requires experts within TREs to meticulously check research outputs, such as tables, plots, and Artificial Intelligence models, which can be costly and time-consuming, often hindering the timely release of research findings.

The SACRO project team, alongside key collaborators and members of the public, responded to this challenge using a multifaceted approach, addressing the complexity of OSDC and the need for efficiency in TREs:

  • A framework for quality assurance: The SACRO team developed a consolidated framework with a robust statistical basis. This framework not only guides TREs but also establishes consistent and standardised processes for quality assurance, providing a foundation for secure and reliable research outputs.
  • A semi-automated system: The SACRO team designed and implemented a semi-automated system tailored to scrutinise common research outputs efficiently. What sets this system apart is its scalability, with plans to extend support to more intricate outputs, including those generated by AI.
  • Cross-sector collaboration: Recognising the diversity of TREs across various sectors and organisations, the SACRO team worked collaboratively to ensure that the solutions developed have broad applicability, fostering a collective commitment to data privacy and security.
  • Public involvement and engagement: The SACRO team strongly emphasised public trust and built confidence in their work through consistent public involvement and engagement in project activities and decisions.

Outputs and Achievements

The SACRO team’s efforts have translated into tangible outputs that contribute to the advancement of TREs and the broader data research landscape:

  • Documentation and code repositories: The SACRO project produced comprehensive documentation and open-source code repositories, creating a valuable technical resource for the research community working with sensitive data.
  • A consensus statement: With input from the public and key data research stakeholders, the SACRO team developed a consensus statement that outlines the principles organisations should uphold when deploying semi-automated disclosure control, promoting transparency and ethical data management practices.
  • Ready for testing: Having accomplished its initial goals, the SACRO team is now poised for extensive user testing of their outputs and refinement of the resources. Numerous organisations ranging from regional (e.g. the Grampian Data Safe Haven) through national (e.g. Public Health Scotland) to international (e.g. Eurostat) are in the process of trialling the SACRO toolkits, marking a significant step towards real-world application.

SACRO’s Public Involvement and Engagement Efforts

Recognising that public trust is fundamental to the efficient and ethical management of data within TREs, the SACRO team involved members of the public in its decision-making processes, ensuring that the solutions and outputs developed align with the values and expectations of the wider community. SACRO’s strategy for public involvement and engagement (PIE) and key accomplishments are summarised as follows:

  • Literature review: The SACRO team conducted a comprehensive review of existing public involvement and engagement literature related to output checking. This informed the project’s overall PIE strategy as well as the principles within the consensus statement.
  • Consensus building Beyond the engagements, the SACRO team maintained close contact with the group, getting feedback along each step of the way.
  • Steering group participation: Members of the public were not mere spectators but active contributors, with three individuals recruited from the OpenSAFELY Digital Critical Friends group and the Scottish Centre for Administrative Data Research (SCADR) public panel serving on the SACRO steering group. Their involvement extended beyond periodic meetings, providing ongoing input into the project’s focus areas.
  • Feedback mechanisms: SACRO facilitated ongoing communication with the public through email updates outside of formal meetings. This ensured transparency and allowed for continuous feedback on project progress.
  • Inclusion and accessibility: The diversity of the consultative public group involved in the SACRO project ensured a broad representation of voices. The project team also used diagrams and case studies, as suggested by the public group, to make complex ideas more accessible.

SACRO’s journey was not just a scientific exploration but a shared endeavour with the public. By actively involving the public throughout the project’s lifecycle and ensuring transparency in decision-making, SACRO demonstrated the power of collaborative research.

Visit the SACRO Driver Project page to explore the final reports and outputs: SACRO: Semi-Automated Checking of Research Outputs


Learn more about the DARE UK Driver Projects