Success in strange times: the UK Data Service Secure Lab during the pandemic

As part of a series as the Secure Lab approaches its tenth anniversary, James Scott offers some insight into running the Secure Lab during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Strange times

It goes without saying that the past year has been challenging for all of us, whatever our domestic setup or working environment, and whilst UK Data Service staff have been lucky to be able to continue working, there have certainly been some challenges along the way!

Rewind to mid-March 2020 when the advice given to workers across the country was “If you can work from home, you should”.

For some teams at the UK Data Service this was easier advice to follow than it was for others; in the case of the Support team, we wondered whether we would have to close Secure Lab for the foreseeable future.  Operating a service like Secure Lab, which holds highly detailed controlled data, surely wasn’t going to be possible from home for a multitude of practical and legal reasons?

All those researchers whose research would be interrupted indefinitely didn’t bear thinking about…it didn’t look good.

However, data owners sanctioned a temporary relaxation of requirements for accessing Secure Lab, allowing some secure data to be accessed from home. Of course, this was permissible only under very specific conditions, and with individual consent needing to be obtained. 

It is due to these agreements we have managed to keep the service open, which has been incredibly good news for the research community.  Please see the UK Data Service website Covid-19 page for more details.

Training

But what about new researchers?  How were we going to train them when the cross-service Safe Researcher Training course has been specifically designed for face to face delivery?

Adapting a 10:00am – 4:00pm face-to-face course to an online format without compromising important messaging was always going to be a challenge.  In particular, it was clear that keeping researchers engaged with a six hour course was going to be a challenge without the physical presence of experienced trainers to keep the energy levels up!

Our approach was to try and distil the content into a shorter timeframe – the course now runs from 10:00am to 1:30PM – by cutting, combining, and reconfiguring the material wherever possible, with the hope of reducing the likelihood of “Zoom fatigue”. This is important stuff, and the messages and principles imparted are crucial to using the Secure Lab, or any secure service, safely.

We were the first service in the UK to develop and test an online version of the course, delivering the first session on 2nd April, with others following our lead in subsequent weeks.

After the initial session, we switched our delivery platform to Zoom, as it is far more widely used; it is important that attendees are familiar with the platform used so that they can concentrate on the course content. 

Moreover, Zoom has a poll facility that makes it quick and easy for the online version of our usual, entirely anonymous, face-to-face course feedback forms to be deployed via this new medium.  These forms had previously been handed out at the end of face to face sessions. I’m pleased to report that we are receiving the same positive feedback for the course that we always have done!

Another aspect of moving the course online that had to be considered was I.D. checking.

On the face-to-face course we always asked to see a photographic I.D. of all attendees, to ensure that we had the correct people in the room. We didn’t want people to be holding up their photo I.D.s to their webcams, so we implemented a process of identification being sent securely, via our ZendTo service, in advance of the course.  This means we can simply check the scans we hold against the attendee’s webcams once the session begins, and subsequently destroy the identification scans.

A new rhythm

Of course, settling into the particular rhythms of home-working can take a while, and coupling this with home-schooling, as some of us have, has been another thing to get used to.

After an initial drop at the beginning of the pandemic, whilst we were working closely with data owners to find ways of keeping Secure Lab open, we have seen an increase in output requests, especially from the latter months of 2020 onwards.  Moreover, we now have some new staff on the team, which will help to ensure that we are able to maintain the standards users have come to expect from us.

Feedback

One of the things that has been a genuine pleasure during these unprecedented times has been the amount of positive, and understanding, emails we have received from Secure Lab users.  We have had numerous emails thanking us for keeping Secure Lab going during the pandemic, and for our continued high quality service at this difficult time.

It really is very heartening when newer researchers take time out of their busy schedules to send us their thanks:

“I know this is not a mandatory email, but I really wanted to say thank you for all your checks, help and swift responses to everything!”

And when more established Secure Lab users reassure us that they continue to enjoy a positive experience:

“As always, I am very happy about the level of your support and the quick turnaround time”

Our Secure Lab users have been hugely supportive and appreciative of our work in these uncertain times, and this is a real boost to team morale at a time when it is much needed.

We look forward to continuing to work with and support our many Secure Lab users whether they are working from home under special agreement, or from their institutions as they return to their usual place of research.


James Scott is part of the User Support Team at the UK Data Archive.

James is largely involved with Secure Lab and the training associated with its use. He has worked on research projects covering such diverse topics as perceptions of social class, young people’s involvement in gangs, schools, households’ response to job loss, and Christmas. He is vice-chair of the Safe Data Access Professionals group.

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