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Making successful applications

The information below provides some guidance and tips to help you make an application for administrative data.

1. Identify previous research
Before starting any application for administrative data you should first research if the data has been accessed from an organisation in the past. Find out who who has accessed it, how it was accessed and the level of detail that was made available. This could provide some valuable information and help you make an initial assessment about whether it is feasible to begin requesting administrative data from an organisation. Information can be found by researching online and also using Google scholar, and checking the ADLS Hub to search our library of administrative data related publications (from 2000 onwards).

2. Individual records
Requesting individual level data from an organisation maybe subject to a lengthy application procedure, ethics approval and subject to being held in a more secure environment with more stringent licensing arrangements. Therefore, ask yourself if your research must require access to individual records.  Think creatively and if your research goal can be achieved with aggregate or anonymised data then you should choose this route in the first instance.

3. Contact the data holding organisation
Most data holding organisations will be happy to discuss the data requirements of your research proposal in the first instance. They should be able to provide you with information to help you make a decision about whether to make an application for data. For example, data that is currently available, data quality, timescales for an application, constraints on the use of data, licensing arrangements, costs and likelihood of application success. They may also be able to advise on previous research uses of their data. You can also check their source documentation, which may either be available from the organisation’s website or may be available to download as a pack of information from the ADLS website.

4. Familiarise yourself with a data holding organisation’s application procedures
Each organisation in the UK that provides administrative data has a different set of procedures for making an application for their data.  It is important that you familiarise yourself with these procedures to ensure that your application is dealt with efficiently.  Information about these application procedures can be found on our website when you search for administrative data.

As a general rule, when you apply to organisations to access their administrative data you will need to provide detailed information in your application about the following:

  • The nature of your research
  • Why you require sensitive data (if applicable)
  • The security arrangements that your organisation has in place to prevent data being lost or copied
  • Your understanding of disclosure risk
  • Arrangements for destruction of data

Please note that in some cases the organisation will stipulate that you must respond to some or all of the requirements above before access to their administrative data is permitted. Ethical approval may also need to be obtained from either your organisation or the data holding organisation. 

NOTE:  Some organisations have legal and other restrictions on the use of their data for research.  For example the Department of Education will only allow their data to be re-used for education related research. 

Prior to any application, it is important that you have background knowledge about relevant legislation, disclosure risk and data security arrangements that could affect your application and any subsequent research that is to be undertaken with the data.  Our ADLS Safe Researcher training courses are designed to provide you with this information.

5. Allow sufficient time
The length of time from application to data provision varies greatly between organisations, generally dependent on organisational resources, and the detail of the data.  The ADLS website provides guidance on the length of time an application can take.  In some cases (for example for NHS patient identifiable data) the process can take a minimum of three to six months. Find this out and ensure that this meets with your timescale for producing your research. It is also important to acknowledge that the timetable for supplying the data indicated by an organsiation may be subject to change and delays and so this should be reflected in the research project timetable.

6. Tailor research to benefit the data holding organisation
Where possible, try and tailor your research proposal so that it will also be of benefit to the data holding organisation. This will provide a stronger argument in your application.  Some data holding organisations (such as the Department of Education and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) stipulate this in any case.

7. Data security
Check that the data security that your organisation has matches the data security level required by the data holding organisation.  Fully detail this in your application with reference to any requirements set out by the data holding organisation.  They may also be able to advise on any additional data security features that need to be put in place in order to satisfy their requirements.  If you or your organisation are unable to meet the specified requirements then there maybe other options available (such as pseudonymisation of the data, trusted third party mechanism or on-site datalabs).  Please see our section on data security for further information or contact the ADLS for advice on these topics.

8. Data request
Look closely at the organisation’s data dictionary and only request the information that you need to complete your research.  This not only allows an organisation to assess your application more efficiently but it also demonstrates to an organisation that you have taken the time to think your proposal through.  You should also take into account the size of an organisation’s dataset (which sometimes holds millions of records) and restrict your research appropriately.

Conversely, make sure that you request all the information that you need at the time of application.  There will probably be nothing more frustrating than getting your application approved to find out that you have not requested everything that you need. If you cannot find the exact data that you need for your research then don’t give up. Look through the organisation’s source document and data dictionaries to see if you can use a different variable as a proxy measure. Use previous literature to help you assess the potential of a variable as a proxy (for example the free school meal variable in the National Pupil Database has been used frequently as a measure of low income).

9. Ethics
Where necessary, consult your organisation and / or the data holding organisation to obtain appropriate ethical approval.  In some cases (such as NHS patient identifiable data) ethical approval will always be required.

Data holding organisations may also place restrictions on the re-use of the data (such as for non-commercial purposes).  They may also demand that outputs are checked by them before publication and data is destroyed within a certain period.  Please ensure that you are aware of all restrictions and considerations.

10. Research outputs
When making an application, good practice would be to include information about how the research is going to be used, where it will be published and to what level of detail.  You should always advise the organisation on procedures for disclosure control to ensure that identifiable data is not published.  In some cases, an organisation will stipulate that all outputs are sent to them first to ensure that this scenario does not occur.  For further information on disclosure risk analysis please read our section here and contact the ADLS for further guidance.

11. Data transfer, security and destruction
An organisation will generally stipulate how the data will be transferred to you or your organisation and how it should be stored (usually detailed in the contract / licence agreement).  You should ensure and detail in your application that these minimum standards can be meet.  Further information on data security is available here.  

There may also be stipulations on how the data should be destroyed and again this should be detailed in your application.  Note that some organisations will only licence you to hold the data for a specified period of time and may also request that data is returned to them as opposed to being physically destroyed.   

12. Contact the ADLS for further guidance on your application
You can send a draft of your application to the ADLS and we will check over the contents and where possible, provide you with further guidance and advice.  The ADLS also have a team of staff that have expertise in legal, ethical, disclosure and security areas of administrative data. Please contact us to receive further information and guidance and answer any queries that you might have.

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