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What is the Administrative Data Research Network?

The Network - or ADRN - is a group of universities and national statistics agencies spread throughout the UK, who work together to help researchers get access to de-identified, linked administrative data.

Administrative data is collected mostly for administrative purposes - that is, to provide a service or to keep records. This could be tax data, educational records or even health information. These data are not usually available for anyone to consult, they are only used by the government departments and agencies that collect the information so they can do their work. 

But these data contain a wealth of information that could help all kinds of research to analyse, better understand and improve our society.

The Network makes it possible for trained researchers to use administrative data for social and economic research, while making sure the data remains safe and everyone’s privacy is protected.

The Network is structured in five parts, the Administrative Data Service, led by the University of Essex, which coordinates the Network and is the central port of call for all enquiries, and four administrative data research centres, one for each of the countries of the UK:

  • England, led by the University of Southampton
  • Northern Ireland, led by Queen’s University Belfast
  • Scotland, led by the University of Edinburgh
  • Wales, led by Swansea University

You can read more about our setup here.

How does the Network protect our privacy?

We have many safeguards in place to ensure that researchers never see any directly identifying information, such as names, full addresses, full dates of birth, national insurance numbers, etc. All that information is removed from the datasets, because that’s not what researchers are interested in. They only want the bigger picture.

If different datasets are linked to each other, they will be linked by an independent and trustworthy organisation, such as the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).

Because we realise that the data may contain sensitive information, we apply the “5 safes principle”, which is very well explained by this video created by the UK Data Service.

New research projects must be approved by an independent Approvals Panel. They assess the projects against five criteria: feasibility, scientific merit, public benefit, non-commercial purpose and ethical approval from an independent Ethics Committee. The summary of approved projects is published on our website, as is the overview of reasons why projects have been rejected. We do not publish more details on the rejected projects, as the research idea might be taken up and reworked into another proposal at a later date. If a project is rejected, it only means that it was not appropriate for the Network, not that the proposal in itself was in any way wrong.

The datasets can only be analysed by researchers who have taken our specialised training in how to handle sensitive data, and only at secure locations at one of our universities or the Statistics Agencies. The data never leave those locations.

Before any results of the analysis are released, someone will check them to make sure nobody can be re-identified from the results - this is our statistical disclosure control.

Read more about de-identification, data linkage, the Approvals Panel, our specialised researcher training, our secure locations and statistical disclosure control.

Who decides how the data are used?

The Approvals Panel first assesses every project and decides if the Network will take on the data negotiations for it. 

But even when a project is approved, the final decision rests with the government departments whose data we need. They may ask for additional safety measures or put their own restrictions on the use of their data.

Who checks that what you’re doing is allowed?

The Network reports to the Economic and Social Research Council, which is funded by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (formerly Department for Business Innovation & Skills). 

The Network also reports to the Board, chaired by the UK Statistics Authority, which reports to Parliament. The Board’s minutes are available online.

We have legal specialists from the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh among our staff who ensure that what we do is legal and lawful.

What kind of research are you supporting?

One of the major requirements for the research that we accept is that it needs to demonstrate potential public benefit - potential because the research in itself may highlight issues and suggest solutions, but to carry them out is usually in the hands of politicians and policy-makers.

But what does ‘public benefit’ mean?

We want the researchers to show that their research, the work we put in when negotiating for accessing, de-identifying and linking data, and the work government departments do to make the data available, will eventually help us understand our society better and improve it where we can. For instance, research can see if certain policy measures make the difference they’re supposed to bring about, or not, and suggest improvements or changes to make those policies more effective and efficient.

We do not support any commercial research and we do not sell the datasets we receive to any organisation or individual.

You can check out the research here.


>> Read about our Talk Big Data panel discussions

>> What does the film 'I, Daniel Blake' have to do with administrative data research?

>> Get involved in the ADRN!

>> Any questions? Check our FAQs

>> Specialist words explained


Page last updated: 06/02/2017