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A Monash-led consortium including QCIF has secured federal funding to create a national platform to ensure sensitive data remains both secure and FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable).

The Secure eResearch Platform (SeRP) project is a national collaboration to deliver a secure, trusted and scalable environment for sensitive data sharing, governance, control and management services for researchers. 

The project will receive almost $1m in National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) funding via the Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC), and more than $1.3m from other partners.

Data security for research is an emerging and critical area that needs sustained national investment. Data can be sensitive for many reasons: personal, cultural, national security or commercial sensitivities.

QCIF is coordinating the adoption of SeRP in Queensland and will work with researchers from The University of Queensland and the UQ Research Computing Centre to deploy and customise the platform. These UQ researchers are leading national health projects, including the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH), the Australian Centre of Excellence in Melanoma Imaging and Diagnosis (ACEMID), and Aged Care Data Compare (ACDC draws on global interRAI data). 

Beyond UQ’s projects, Dr Dominique Gorse, Director of QCIF Bioinformatics, said SeRP will be extended to accommodate the needs of other Queensland universities. 

“SeRP has been a missing component for Queensland’s research infrastructure. We are looking forward to collaborating with Monash and other project partners to build this secure and trusted remote data analysis platform and enabling data governance at scale,” said Dr Gorse.

For ACEMID, SeRP will enable the establishment of a world-first teledermatology network based on 3D Total Body Photography with the ultimate aim to translate the service — especially big-data with artificial intelligence capabilities — into standard clinical practice.

ACEMID Director Professor H. Peter Soyer, from UQ’s Dermatology Research Centre, said: “SeRP will have a significant impact on our research based on acquiring and transmitting 3D Total Body Images from study participants who will feel confident that their sensitive images will be transmitted and stored in a secure fashion.”

For ACDC, its equally ambitious goal to develop a data hub, to standardise and support the exchange of aged-care facilities’ resident assessment data, could not be achieved in the intended three-year timeframe without SeRP. 

ACDC Senior Biostatistician and Data Scientist Associate Professor Jason Ferris, from UQ’s Centre for Health Services Research, said: “Without this platform, we would be searching for a solution that met our needs, but was also affordable under the project budget — a tough ask without investing a lot of time and resources. Now we can concentrate on our research aims around health data exchange and benchmarking quality of care, knowing that our data management will be high-standard and secure for this pilot phase and for future projects in our research plan.” 

Monash leads the SeRP project, with key partners including Swansea University (UK), QCIF, the University of NSW, Curtin University, the Sax Institute, LaTrobe University and the University of Melbourne. 

The project will enable both institutional and national cross-jurisdictional research projects that bring together national and global sensitive data assets and collaborations.

SeRP has the potential to be scaled nationally to enable Australian institutions to manage their own data while also supporting effective cross-institutional collaborations. This has been demonstrated in the UK, where SeRP underpins some of the largest long-term national scale cross-sector research data partnerships, such as SAIL Databank and Administrative Data Research UK.

In 2018, Monash University established a research collaboration with Swansea University in the UK to adapt and deploy an instance of SeRP on the ARDC’s Nectar Research Cloud. The SeRP platform also incorporates data linkage capabilities developed by the Centre for Data Linkage (CDL) at Curtin University. 

Professor Belinda Gabbe, who has championed the adoption of SeRP at Monash University, has recently been using Monash SeRP in research into the ongoing health of trauma patients, linking data from the trauma registry, Transport Accident Commission claims, hospital admissions, emergency department presentations and deaths registry data.

“There’s a huge responsibility to handle data securely. SeRP is entirely customisable. That’s fantastic because the analyses being undertaken are so variable. We have national partners working on health economics, complex modelling and machine learning projects,” said Professor Gabbe. 

SeRP will underpin Dementia Platform Australia, which is led by the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) at UNSW Sydney.

Professor Perminder Sachdev, Co-Director of CHeBA, said: “We are delighted to see this partnership with Monash University become a reality. Dementia Platform Australia plans to host data on scores of longitudinal studies of brain ageing and dementia which could transform the epidemiology of ageing and dementia. 

“It is a partnership with Dementias Platform UK, which will provide the software, and COSMIC collaboration, which brings several Australian and international studies to this platform to make them accessible to researchers around the globe.”

At Curtin University, a long-term partner of Swansea University, this project will enable on-boarding of key data assets including from health, justice, education, child protection, housing and disability sectors of government to support a range of national, collaborative research projects including the Linking4Life program led by the University of Western Australia.

Associate Professor Anna Ferrante who heads the CDL team said: “We are excited by the prospect of bringing localised data linkage capability to Australian researchers.

“Having SeRP instances operating across Australia will give our researchers enormous flexibility. We look forward to working with partners to establish communities of practice and providing a consistent approach to using these kinds of platforms.”

For more information, please contact Dr Dominique Gorse:

Part of this article is based on a Monash University media release about SeRP.