In today’s high-powered, hyper-connected world, the vast potential to use data to generate insight and understanding is matched only by the need to keep it safe and secure.
The first facility of its kind at a European university, the £1M Jill Dando Institute Research Laboratory (JDIRL) at UCL combines state-of-the-art storage for sensitive datasets with the ability to use them to shed light on anything from consumer behaviour to crime patterns.
With rigorous protocols and processes ensuring both digital and physical security, this unique facility offers exciting possibilities in research, enabling academic, commercial and public sector organisations to transform hard data into solid knowledge. The lab is currently undergoing a major update, including installing new hardware, software, and high performance computing capabilities to future-proof the facility for its users’ needs.
Where Confidentiality is King
Data has been dubbed ‘the new natural resource’. The challenge is to ensure it can be exploited effectively and creatively while remaining immune from hacking, tampering, theft and corruption. Located in Central London, the JDIRL – part of the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science – is more than a match for the task, as confirmed by its accreditation as a Police Assured Secure Facility (PASF).
“We worked with the Metropolitan Police to achieve this status over a 2-year period,” says Gordon Butler, the lab’s former manager. “We took on board their requirements, feedback and advice and now we’re the only UK university to hold PASF accreditation for the storage of sensitive data.” To protect the data it hosts:
- The lab has no IT link with the outside world – to use this completely self-contained facility, researchers have to visit it in person.
- Stringent controls cover physical entry into the lab, as well as access to its IT system and the individual datasets it holds.
- Every user and staff member undergoes rigorous vetting to identify any potential security risks.
“Everything we do is geared to providing total reassurance for the owners of the data we host“Gordon Butler, former Manager, JDIRL
“Everything we do is geared to providing total reassurance for the data’s owners,” Butler confirms. “Each hosting arrangement is covered by a comprehensive Service Level Agreement addressing issues such as data protection and sharing. We’re eager to encourage as many commercial, financial, public service and other organisations as possible to entrust their data to us.”
Behind Closed Doors
As well as the formidable security it provides, the JDIRL offers extraordinary opportunities for researchers working within and across all kinds of disciplines. With 24 individual workstations divided into a standard Blue Zone and a Red Zone where extra-confidential material can be accessed and additional user criteria apply, the lab offers the ideal location to undertake research projects involving fine-grain analysis of sensitive data.
“We provide the software and hardware platform that’s right for each project, plus additional research manpower where required,” Gordon Butler explains. “A key feature is our ability to combine and anonymise datasets, with the owners’ permission, to provide a wider data pool for projects undertaken by UCL, other SES institutions and academia generally.”
Initiatives that have already taken advantage of the lab’s cutting-edge capabilities include:
The Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC)
Involving SES members Oxford and UCL working in partnership with Leeds and Liverpool universities, this ESRC-funded Big Data Network Centre makes consumer data available to academic researchers seeking to understand issues such as consumer behaviour, ethical consumption and health & obesity. The data is provided by retail companies, energy providers, transport providers and other public-facing organisations – but its commercial and personal sensitivity means any risk to security must be minimised. The JDIRL helps make it happen.
“As one of the most secure facilities of its kind at a UK university, the JDIRL is an obvious asset for us to exploit,” comments Sarah Sheppard, CDRC Project Manager. “It makes it easier to convince organisations to supply their data for research use and they’re undoubtedly ‘wowed’ by every aspect of the lab, from its exemplary accreditation to its air-locked door and the fact that it’s a totally offline facility where even USB sticks and mobile phones are banned. Everything translates into complete peace of mind – and the opportunity for us to ensure that more and more data is available for analysis.”
The Crime, Policing and Citizenship (CPC) Project
Funded by EPSRC and carried out by UCL in collaboration with the Metropolitan Police, this 4-year, £1.4M project faced a classic ‘big data’ challenge. Its top-line aim was to explore the relationship between police activity patterns, reported instances of crime/disorder and public perceptions of crime, and so aid data-driven ‘intelligent policing’ – for example, by improving prediction of where and when criminal activities might occur.
The data sources were not only extensive, including police logs where tens of thousands of incidents were recorded and geo-referenced; they were also extremely sensitive.
Storage of the datasets at the JDIRL and utilisation of the lab’s facilities to drill into and analyse the data have made a huge contribution to the project’s success. “Without the JDIRL, we couldn’t access the data to develop and test our methods and algorithms,” says Professor Tao Cheng, leader of the CPC project. “Algorithms relating to crime prediction and evaluation of police performance are currently being trialled by the Metropolitan Police Service”.
The CIA Way
When considering the JDIRL’s key strengths and selling-points, words like ‘confidence’ and ‘trust’ are always to the fore. “We implement what’s known as the CIA model,” says Gordon Butler. “C is for Confidentiality and maintaining the highest level of data privacy; I is for Integrity and the knowledge that data can’t be breached or corrupted; A is for Availability guaranteed, to those authorised to use the data.”Once a research project is complete, depending entirely on the owner’s wishes, data may be deleted or retained to give future researchers access to material that would otherwise remain out of reach. “On one level, the lab offers quite a simple proposition,” Gordon Butler concludes. “But an awful lot of sophisticated stuff is needed to make sure it stays that way.
“The organisations we deal with are ‘wowed’ by every aspect of the lab“Sarah Sheppard, Project Manager, Consumer Data Research Centre
Dr Caitlin Clemmow
Manager of the Jill Dando Institute Research Laboratory (JDIRL)