Using data for effective health service evaluation: why we need data stewards

Richard Welpton, Senior Data Manager at The Health Foundation, explores what makes a good data steward and how his experience working at the UK Data Service prepared him to undertake this role successfully.


The Open Data Institute has breathed new life into the idea of ‘data stewardship’ in a recent report, in which it re-envisages the collection, maintenance and sharing of data in a way that increases access to it for public benefit. As the ODI report explains, data stewardship is about ‘looking after data’, not in the traditional data management sense of ‘controlling access’ but through preserving, documenting, and transforming data so that they can be used for good, now and in the future.

As a Senior Data Manager in the Data Analytics Team at the Health Foundation, the report prompted me to reflect on why there has never been a more important time for people and organisations that use data to evaluate and accelerate health service improvements to grasp this idea. In particular, it got me thinking about the skills needed to be an effective data steward and the current absence of clear career pathways for our profession.

What makes a good data steward?

So how and where does one come to be a good data steward? I have the UK Data Service to thank for setting me up to take on this role and for giving me the experience and skills I needed to carve out a really interesting career in this area.

I worked at the UK Data Service between 2010 and 2015, and it’s here that I gained a number of skills, including data acquisition; data documentation systems and metadata; data linkage; legal aspects of acquiring, managing and using data; data privacy issues and techniques, and IT and data access.

But most of all, what I learnt during my time at the UK Data Service is the importance of wrapping these skills into a holistic package of what I’d now call ‘data stewardship’:  nurturing data to a state of maturity so that analysts can fully use data and the benefits are felt by the public. The UK Data Service is one of a handful of organisations with a well-deserved international reputation for training people to take on these roles.

How can data stewardship help with effective health service evaluation?

When it comes to population health, and how we manage it, the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has shone a bright light on the need for effective digital and data-driven technology. Whether it’s for contact-tracing efforts to slow down and prevent the spread of the disease, or to support the use of online technology for remote consultations, the need for effective technology has become a major priority.

It’s important to evaluate new technology, but as the ODI report says, there isn’t enough emphasis placed on the importance of robust evaluation. Instead, the report’s authors say, data remains ‘locked up within organisational silos’. Without that data, the innovators behind these technologies are unable to learn and improve, health care organisations cannot possibly identify what works best and spread the word, and people in need of treatment or care just don’t get what they need. While medicines and drugs are evaluated under the strictest of processes, digital technologies are largely tried out on the hoof.

In my current role, my data steward colleagues and I play the following roles to support effective evaluation:

  • Understanding the data required by researchers for evaluation
  • Pushing for development and adoption of new procurement terms that include access to data for evaluating performance
  • Pushing for development and adoption of new standards, certification etc. for organisations involved in collection, processing, sharing and use of health data
  • Appreciating the need to model and capture data flows, and capture metadata
  • Understanding the legal basis under which data can be used and shared

This is bread and butter work for me; and I’m thankful to the UK Data Service for investing in the skills that have equipped me for this role.  For example, a thorough understanding of data acquisition, data linkages and metadata is essential for working out how to model and capture data flows.  The appreciation I now have of legal and data privacy issues helps me to advise colleagues about the legal basis under which data can be used and shared.

What is needed to support better data stewardship?

I consider myself fortunate that this is how my career has developed, but there has been a degree of chance and good fortune. This notion of ‘data stewardship’ doesn’t seem to have an established career path and the roles aren’t always recognized outside of the field.

This is something the Safe Data Access Professionals (SDAP) group has tried hard to address with a Competency Framework. The Research Data Alliance is also working to improve career pathways and raise the professional status of data stewards. Anecdotally, we have heard that government agencies, many of whom are key data collectors/suppliers, struggle to recruit and keep staff in data stewardship roles.  Putting in place career pathways and recognition of the role’s professional status are vital steps to dealing with this problem.

It’s encouraging that institutions like the Open Data Institute and the UK Data Service understand the importance of and advocate for good data stewardship.  Putting these skills into a framework that offers people an exciting and varied career is exactly what’s needed if we are going to harness the power of data in the future, and I’m pleased that the Research Data Alliance are addressing this.

Embracing the data stewardship model has real potential to ensure that the wonderful innovations and the real benefits of digital technology are embraced, shared and put to best use in our efforts to help people live healthy lives. COVID19 may just be the catalyst for that, but it also needs to be the catalyst for a new profession that attracts new data steward recruits.

Further reading and useful links


I would like to thank Dr Hannah Knight, Senior Analytics Manager at The Health Foundation, and Christine Garrington, for their help and support with developing this article.

About the author

Richard Welpton is Senior Data Manager at The Health Foundation. Richard supports analysts at the Health Foundation by acquiring access to sources of (pseudo)anonymised patient data, ensuring that data governance processes are followed, and identifying new data linkages to discover insights into quality of care.

Richard’s career to date has focused on supporting researchers and analysts accessing confidential sources of data.  In 2007, Richard joined the Office for National Statistics’ Virtual Microdata Laboratory. Since then, Richard has been involved in setting up and managing a number of data infrastructure projects in the UK and in Europe, including at the UK Data Service and Cancer Research UK.  Richard will be leaving The Health Foundation in November 2020 before taking up a position at the Economic and Social Research Council.

Richard has written a number of articles about data access and data privacy (including how to ensure research findings do not breach patient data confidentiality). Richard’s background is in economics, for which he holds an MSc from University of Nottingham.

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