Data Interview with Jude Towers

Already our third Data Interview! This time with Dr Jude Towers. Jude is Lecturer in Sociology and Quantitative Methods and the Associate Director Violence and Society UNESCO Centre. She holds Graduate Statistician status from the Royal Statistical Society, is an Accredited Researcher through the ONS Approved Researcher Scheme, and is level 3 vetted by Lancashire Constabulary. Her current research is focused on the measurement of violence. Jude also presented at the first Data Conversations.

Q: Jude, what data do you currently work with?

Jude: The main data I work with is the Crime Survey for England and Wales. That is available on the UK Data Service. The different parts of it have different access requirements. The main questionnaire which I now mostly use is relative straightforward. You can just download it and use it.

Then we comply with the Home Office and ONS [Office for National Statistics] recommendations about the sizes of cells for publication. They say there should be a minimum of 50 respondents in a cell before it’s statistically analysed. You must ensure that you if you’re doing cross tabulations, for example, the numbers are sufficient that you couldn’t identify individual respondents. That is relatively straightforward and I would say that’s general good practice in dealing with that kind of data.

We have also used the Intimate Violence module, which is a self-complete module as part of the Crime Survey. For that there is a special level of access which requires training from what used to be the Administrative Data Liaison Service. That was a one day training course in London, signing of lots of different agreements. Then you access that data through your desktop computer, it has to be a static IP address, and everything is held on their server. You go into their server, you can’t bring anything out, and everything you do has to be done in there.

That means if you want to write a journal article using that data you have to write it inside their server. Anything that you produce using that data, whether it’s a presentation in PowerPoint, a table in a slide, all of that has to have approval from the UK Data Service before it can come off the server into any form of public domain. That has to be done each time you use it. It is quite onerous in some ways but is a very high level of security.

Jude Towers

Q: That data is already in an archive so there is no need to share it again. Is citing that data straightforward in case somebody wants to see the data that you used?

Jude: Yes, it’s straightforward to cite. If people want to have access to the raw data they’d have to be accredited in the same way I got accredited. We got the whole team accredited at the same time so we can share data as we produced the work. There is nobody in our team who isn’t accredited. There is no problem …. we can sit in front of the computer and look at that data as we’re trying to develop the work.

Q: So if I were to look at your screen here to view the data I’d have to have the accreditation.

Jude: Yes! Actually it’s interesting that some of these requirements are similar to the ones for police data.

We are doing a lot of work with Lancashire Constabulary. We as a team have just been vetted to Level 3 which gives us the same access as any serving police officer. We have direct access to raw data at the individual level. This is for two reasons. One is that you can ask for data that the police put together, anonymise and give you but if you don’t know what data there is, it is really difficult to know what to ask for. And the second reason is being able to explore the data at that level means that you can make links that you couldn’t otherwise make. You can find individual people in different datasets that allows you to ask much more complex research questions and then anonymise and take it out as a dataset.

That’s been quite an interesting process. First of all, you have to be vetted. Then you get your police access card. Rather than it being on a secure server what we have now got is police laptops. We access the police server through that police laptop. Again, you can’t take anything out until it is anonymised. The keyboard on the laptop records every keystroke so someone can exactly see who you have looked for and why you have looked for them.

Then the requirements that are similar to some of the Home Office ones which are being in a locked office without public access so someone can’t look at what you’re doing over your shoulder whilst you’re doing it. I couldn’t take my police laptop and work in the Library. You can’t work on it in public spaces.

That’s quite interesting because we just got two ESRC Studentships with Lancashire Constabulary and they will do the same. They go through Level 3 vetting and they’ll have the police laptops. But then we came across the problem where do we put them? They can’t go in an office with other PhD students who are not vetted. They are at different stages in their PhD. So actually, what we’ve had to do were quite specific arrangements so that those students share a room that’s locked. You can’t have someone else in the room who is not vetted!

Q: Is it more difficult in this case to cite data because the data is not in an archive like the UK Data Archive?

Jude: What we haven’t yet done in any official capacity, but we’ve had discussions. The Crime Survey data people can access. What we have done in some of the cases where we have produced new data we’ve done data tables and can release those. So people can see the data we use, completely anonymized, aggregated to a very high level. If people want the raw data they can get accredited or they can go to the UK Data Service. If people just want to re-run our statistical tests then the “semi-raw data” if you like is there.

Jude Towers

Q: Is that what you could do with the police dataset?

Jude: That is the conversation we are currently having with the police: Is there any point at which that data can be released into the public domain. We haven’t yet made agreements about that. I think what we’ll end up doing will be very interesting. There are very few researchers who are doing it in this way. Most people get given anonymised data that the police have anonymised themselves.

So we are doing a series of test cases saying that as we increasingly aggregate and anonymise the data at what level can that data put into the public domain and at what level is it useful? We’ll have to see if we can find a place that matches where it is still useful and it can go public. If we are able to do that then we’ll put it into archives.

Q: That is really interesting!

Jude: Yes, but is very clear that in the ESRC Studentships that the police have the final say on that.

Jude at the first Data Conversations

Q: Do the police have a level of expertise and confidence in providing data and working with you? Does that work well?

Jude: It does work well. The police are in a really interesting position. They [are] systematically, some more quickly than others… [nationally] moving to evidence based policing and significantly improving their research capacity. At the moment they are doing that in two ways. One is by working closely with universities and the other is by more systematically training police officers and associate staff.

I am doing a lot of work with Leeds University on data analytics for the police and we are setting up CPD [Continuing Professional Development] for data analysts in the police to have a more systemic and academic approach to research questions. Now that’s really interesting because the position they are in in their organisation tends to be relatively low but some of the things they are asked are just impossible.

So we are trying to give them the tools to say you can’t ask me for this when you don’t collect it. Or you want me to evaluate something but nobody told me it was happening so there is no data from before. We’re getting them to think through the research process in order to influence how data analytics are used inside the police. It is interesting because there is a bit of a debate about whether they really need data analysts or they can spend their money buying really good algorithms [which] will sort all this stuff out. Our argument is that you need really good data analysts because you need them to explicate the inherent theories that people have, that they’re trying to test, that they can talk people through that research process.

In Lancashire Police those things are coming together. They are much more actively working with academics and they are much more systemically embedding academic research processes inside the institution. They have a Futures team that includes multiple PhDs, M.A.s and now even some undergraduate students. They have a list of research questions that they are interested in as an institution, and they are actively going out looking for people who do that research for them and to sit inside the police while they do it.

Q: That is really fascinating! Is there anything Lancaster University could do to help you or your colleagues with your research? Or does the set up work for you?

Jude: I think it’s OK. The sticky parts are things we are working through for example around contracts. Who owns the Intellectual Property? Who gets final say over publications? We’ve been lucky so far that we’ve negotiated things but I know in other areas these have been problematic: getting clarity and setting up protocols is useful.

There’s been some talk about setting up secure data hubs and I’m in two minds about it. I think in some ways they’d be really useful but I think in other ways they are perhaps a bit inflexible. My colleague across the corridor is doing the same as us with social work data and they’ve done what we have done. They accredited the individuals and have given them a specific laptop to access that data directly, and that works really well.

Thanks very much for the interview Jude!

 You can find out more about Jude and her research here. Her current research papers are: with Walby and Francis, ‘Is violent crime increasing or decreasing?’ (BJC 2016); with Walby, ‘Measuring violence to end violence’ (Journal of Gender-based Violence forthcoming); and with Walby et al, The Concept and Measurement of Violence against Women and Men (Policy Press 2017).

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