NB Institute for Research Data and Training – a key player in NB’s Open Data continuum

What is the New Brunswick Institute for Research Data and Training (NB-IRDT)? A solid-gold asset for New Brunswick. Given the growing local and national movement towards open data, this Institute at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton is a huge data asset to help solve some of the province’s most pressing problems.

The Institute conducts and facilitates evidence-based research to provide government, academics, and researchers with unbiased, scientific results on questions related to health, social issues and prosperity in New Brunswick. This means handling some private data, so it is not “open” data in the way that some datasets such as GIS are. The Government of New Brunswick committed to disclosing the data for policy-related research only if it was anonymized and accessed in a secure facility that ensures confidentiality is maintained.

Dr Ted McDonald, Director of NB-IDRT, elaborates. “We offer researchers access to this anonymized data on a closed network on the UNB campus. Access to the data is restricted not only through IT but through physical restrictions. We have rigorous and validated policies in place that control who gets in, what they get to see, and for how long.”

The Institute provides a unique service to the research community in that it links large person-specific datasets from different sources using unique random numbers. The set-up allows such research as looking at a treatment for a specific disease such as Hepatitis C. What are the costs and the benefits, direct and longer term? “The results may allow different interventions to improve the health of at-risk populations who have had interactions with more than one government department, such as Social Development and Health, and who therefore show up in more than one set of data. But those datasets have typically been held in silos.” He stresses: “With this approach, we are able to link the data without knowing who the individuals in question are.”

McDonald is keen to explore partnerships with other players in the Open Data continuum in NB, to avoid duplication of infrastructure and costs. “We can provide access to linked data on thousands of people to a researcher who could not otherwise get access to it. But some requests that come to us might be for completely open data and we could forward those to partners such as nb+.”

NB-IDRT has completed a couple of demo projects, and has many active projects with ideas for even more – in water quality, youth mental health, green space, obesity, regional differences in types of surgeries, services to NB’s dispersed population, refugee retention.  The scope of this valuable resource is potentially vast. One such project in development focuses on alternate level of care (ALC) patients, individuals who remain in hospital when other forms of care are more suitable. With the use of available administrative data bases, ALC hospital patients can be retrospectively identified and their trajectory of health and residency arrangement leading up to the designation of ALC can be studied.

NB-IRDT already hosts anonymized hospital inpatient data (discharge abstracts database) from 1998-2013, a citizen database of New Brunswick residents from 1997-2014, data on healthcare providers from 1997-2014, and data on date and cause of death from 2000-2012.

McDonald concludes: “Future expansion plans for NB-IRDT include the creation of an affiliated site at the Université de Moncton, thereby making data more accessible to researchers in other parts of the Province.” For further information on NB-IDRT, please contact nb-irdt@unb.ca or go to the Institute’s web site.