Enabling collaborative public health research using blockchain technology

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The federal health department wanted a data science lab environment that allowed health researchers to carry out “big data” experiments and vital health research without having direct access to patient data. Agile Digital developed an award-winning solution that opened up health data for use in research while ensuring patient confidentiality.

Client

Department of Health

Sector

Federal GovernmentResearch & Academia

Timeframe

2017

Technology Themes

Blockchain Technology Vault Cloud

Background

A key concern for research undertaken using Australian patient records is personal data privacy. The Department of Health has committed to unlocking the value of public investment in its research through better use of health research data sets in its Data Access and Release Policy. To make this happen, patient health records needed to be de-identified before being made available to researchers.

Agile Digital partnered with Gulanga Group, Vault Systems and the Department to develop and deliver a solution for a secure, blockchain-backed data science platform linking researchers to valuable patient data.

Mission

This project required a high-security solution with cloud deployment and high amounts of access to third parties to datasets governed by strict privacy policies. The research collaborators required full access to share and analyse datasets in an online environment without downloading raw datasets. It was crucial that there was strong notarisation and record-keeping to indicate every instance of data handling.

All project elements, including metadata, networks, management systems and security operations were required to be maintained in Australia by staff vetted by the Australian Government to appropriate security clearance.

Approach

Agile Digital designed and delivered this award-winning Proof of Concept in 2017 for a privacy-centric platform allowing data scientists to securely collaborate on public health research.

Agile Digital produced a virtual data science lab environment with:

  • An online data science portal with a toolbox for submitting and accessing information
  • A public internet-based virtual lab environment where researchers can execute queries and submit experiments
  • Health data stored securely in Vault Cloud, with one area for raw records and one for experiment results and metadata
  • A data diode controlling the flow of queries and data from the raw records to experiment results, keeping private information in the raw records section
  • Blockchain technology for notarising experiment information, queries and results.

The solution delivered a highly secure platform with a rich set of research tools. The blockchain technology enabled detailed and specific information on which researcher undertook data science experiments, what data was ‘touched’ by their experiment, and what aggregate results they received from the analysis.

Outcome

This initiative allowed the Department of Health to demonstrate that data science experiments can be managed by a research platform that ensures individual patient records don’t need to be released to researchers. By intermediating all access to health records it was also able to ensure that inappropriate behaviour, such as attempts to identify individuals, is very difficult to carry out and easy to detect.

As the first blockchain implementation in the federal government, this platform enables collaboration between researchers through visibility of other similar queries by fellow researchers, while complying with the Australian Government’s privacy and security standards.

The Secure Health Data Research & Analytics Platform was awarded ACT’s Big Data Innovation of the Year in 2018 for its ability to assist in public health research whilst maintaining patient privacy. The platform went on to win a Merit Award at the Australian Information Industry Association’s (AIIA) National iAwards.

“The project between the Department of Health, Agile Digital, Gulanga and Vault Systems illustrates how the synergy between Australian organisations can have a sizable impact on security and research.”

Rob Fitzpatrick, Chief Executive Officer of the AIIA