December 21, 2023

TRE-FX: Enabling federated analytics for better healthcare outcomes

The fourth instalment of our Driver Projects blog series puts the spotlight on the TRE-FX project, whose remit was to explore ways to enable collaborative data analytics across trusted research environments in the UK. Learn more about the project’s accomplishments and dynamic public involvement and engagement strategy.

TRE-FX: Delivering a federated network of trusted research environments to enable safe data analytics was one of the five DARE UK Phase 1 Driver Projects funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) following 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.

Led by researchers at the University of Manchester, the TRE-FX Driver Project was funded to create a standardised mechanism for secure and collaborative data analytics across TREs in the UK. TRE-FX focused on devising technical solutions to overcome the geographical and governance barriers in the UK’s distributed TRE system that hinder the posing of science questions across many TREs, which is essential for large-scale data research.

The TRE-FX project rose to the challenge by bringing technology providers from HDR UK and ELIXIR-UK, the national node of ELIXIR Europe, the European Research Infrastructure for Life Science Data. Infrastructure researchers, analysis tool developers, TRE operators, and members of the public explored ways to streamline analysis requests and results exchange between TREs across the UK.

Outputs and Achievements

The TRE-FX project demonstrated the effectiveness of its solutions to enable safe and streamlined data analytics, achieving the following outputs:

  • The Five Safes RO-Crate standard: TRE-FX introduced the “Five Safes RO-Crate” – a new Digital Object format for standardising and streamlining the flow of requests, results, and metadata between federated analysis platforms and TREs in compliance with the Five Safes principles. Research Object Crate (RO-Crate) is a community-based specification for packaging and describing research outputs.
  • Collaboration with TREs and analysis tool providers: TRE-FX showed how the Five Safes RO-Crate works using software components and an end-to-end demonstrator in a TRE in Wales. Two other TREs in Scotland and England are poised to follow suit. Analysis tool providers Bitfount and DataSHIELD modified their systems to incorporate the Five Safes RO-Crates, paving the way for practical implementation as part of the Federated Analytics topic of the HDR UK QQ2 programme.
  • Demonstrated dynamic analytics without moving data. Using existing Workflow Execution Systems developed in ELIXIR, pre-approved analytical processes can be run within a TRE and those workflows registered and made accessible in the WorkflowHub registry for greater processing transparency.
  • Wider implementation and future development: TRE-FX developed and showcased a scalable approach, allowing for the streamlined access of analysis tools to multiple TREs. As two large European projects (EOSC-ENTRUST, EVERSE) gear up to further develop this approach, TRE-FX has opened new avenues for researchers to conduct analyses across diverse TREs efficiently.
  • Public involvement and engagement: The TRE-FX project consistently engaged with members of the public to gather their insights on topics like federated analytics, data security, and personal data usage, ensuring that the project’s outputs aligned with their expectations and concerns.

TRE-FX’s Public Involvement and Engagement Efforts

TRE-FX’s commitment to Public Involvement and Engagement (PIE) ensured that its solutions aligned with public expectations, fostering trust and contributing to the project’s overall success. The project team conducted the following PIE activities to ensure public input in their work:

  • Strategic involvement: The TRE-FX project took deliberate steps to ensure that the public perspective was not only heard but also actively incorporated into decision-making processes. The team demonstrated this commitment by having a member of the public chair project meetings, providing a unique perspective and ensuring that the project resonated with the wider public’s expectations.
  • Multiple outreach channels: TRE-FX employed a multifaceted outreach strategy. Collaborating with Alterline, an agency with a broad network and diverse connections across the UK, ensured that information about PIE activities reached a varied audience. The collaboration with the PIONEER Health Data Research Hub further strengthened promotional activities, leveraging existing networks to effectively disseminate information about the project.
  • Inclusive workshops and focus groups: Two interactive workshops and targeted focus group discussions provided platforms for open dialogue, allowing the public to actively contribute to the project’s development. These sessions facilitated inclusive conversations about the technical aspects of federated analytics, data security, and personal data usage.
  • Accessible information materials: Co-creation of brochures and instructional videos with public input ensured that complex technical information was translated into accessible, public-friendly messages. This collaborative approach enabled the public to understand the complexities of the TRE-FX project and its innovations, fostering informed discussions.

TRE-FX’s success marks a significant step toward transforming data analytics in the UK. TRE-FX’s standardised mechanism has the potential to enhance collaboration and enable comprehensive research for the public good.

Visit the TRE-FX Driver Project page to explore the final reports and outputs: TRE-FX: Delivering a federated network of trusted research environments to enable safe data analytics.


Learn more about the DARE UK Driver Projects