Durham University recently became part of the SafePod Network – an exciting innovative research network that significantly improves access to secure data. The University’s Safepod is coordinated by three ULC staff members and we asked two of them, Katie and Sarah, to tell us more…

In January this year, the University’s SafePod went live, and we started taking bookings from our academic community and beyond. 

Now we should admit that, prior to 2022, neither of us had come across a Safepod before and we were somewhat ignorant about what it could possibly be. So when James Bisset, Senior Manager for Library Research Services, announced the Library would be installing one, Katie will openly say that she initially imagined Safepod as some sort of panic room … and we can both admit to thinking that perhaps it was even a portal for accessing the dark web (!)

How wrong we were. It turns out that the answer, although perhaps not as exciting as first thought, is incredibly important:  the safe setting of the Safepod ensures that eligible researchers can access data that provides identifying information about an individual (e.g. address, age, ethnicity). And this needs to be tightly controlled to prevent unintended disclosure of sensitive information.  What we also came to understand is that the Safepod Network is funded by Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and is part of the Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK) programme. This learning came about through some extensive study which is actually a requirement for all staff involved with Safepod by the Safepod Network, and culminates in an ‘exam’ which – much to Sarah’s excitement – provided virtual certification as an approved Safepod Coordinator!

So, rather than the strong room we’d initially envisaged, the installation of Safepod at Durham really means that researchers now have a secure environment to access sensitive project datasets from Data Centres, such as the Office for National Statistics, the UK Data Service, and the SAIL Databank.  By joining the Network, we’re really pleased to be supporting the Network’s objective to remove the barriers that exist for researchers to access data for public benefit research. We’re also diminishing the need for researchers to travel long distances to use dedicated safe settings, since, along with Northumbria University, we’re now one of the two universities in the North-East with a SafePod (locations of the other SafePods can be found here).

But what on earth does a Safepod look like, you ask? If you’d like to come and look around the outside of the SafePod, the Safepod lives on the ground floor of the Bill Bryson Library. We’d certainly be interested to hear your thoughts on its styling (a certain few ULC staff proclaim that the outside of Safepod looks a bit like a sauna, with its Scandi style wood-cladding)

A picture of the outside of the Library's safepod
And external view of the SafePod. Anyone can look around the outside, but only approved researchers are able to enter.

In terms of the inner workings of Safepod, there aren’t any wildly futuristic, Minority Report-style systems to operate. The researcher area is actually just kitted out with comfort in mind; a height adjustable desk, two monitors and an ergonomic desk chair. The space is completely private and secure, and users across the Network have commented on the benefits of being able to work in an area clear of other distractions. We’ve also received some further positive comments from researchers who have used the SafePod already: 

“I appreciate having access to this powerful dataset through Safepod. The booking process is straightforward and the support team is extremely helpful.” Dr Johny Daniel – Assistant Professor, School of Education

“The ESRC funded SafePod will give us increased and secure access to large datasets. We are really pleased to have this facility available. This will support us to increase our research impact in education policy making. We are most excited for our doctoral researchers who will have convenient access to fascinating and valuable datasets for their research projects.” Prof Nadia Siddiqui – Professor, School of Education

Prof Nadia Siddiqui entering the SafePod
Prof Nadia Siddiqui, our very first researcher to use the University’s Safepod – congratulations Nadia!

If you have a project that you think could benefit from access to one of the secure datasets Safepod provides, we’d encourage researchers to investigate the training offered by SPN to become an approved researcher (Note: a researcher must abide by the SPN User Agreement and pass a training questionnaire like the one we did before they can book and use SafePods.)

You can also find out more by emailing or go to SafePod: Secure Data Access – Library Research Support: Open Research – Guides at Durham University.

We look forward to seeing you soon!

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