Dr. Karon Gush

Maintaining the balance between confidentiality and usefulness of the data

Why read this account

To find out how one research team dealt with concerns that the anonymisation process may have a negative impact on the quality of your data.

The challenge

Dr, Karon Gush and her team collected some valuable data about the impact of job losses. Then they had to strike a balance between reducing the risks of disclosure but also ensuring the data remained useful.

About the research

The study investigated how couples managed their households during recessions, in particular those who have experienced job loss or reduced working hours. It was built on the existing survey data of the ESRC funded project, Understanding Society, which collects a wide range of information about the economic and social circumstances of people living in Britain. This research was funded as a separate project, ‘Understanding the impact of recession on labour market behaviour in Britain’ (ESRC grant number ES/I037628/1).

This study was interested in the division of domestic labour, consumption and expenditure practices, decision making processes and intra-household bargaining. For example, the research considered the relationship between paid and unpaid work and what changed within the household due to unemployment.

The research data is located in the UK Data Service collection at: Understanding Couples’ Experiences of Job Loss in Recessionary Britain: a Linked Qualitative Study, 2008-2013: Special Licence Access

About the data

The team carried out qualitative interviews with a purposive sample derived from the Innovation Panel of the Understanding Society project. A sample of approximately 120 couple households was identified where someone had either lost a job or was working reduced hours in the period from 2008 to 2011.

The sample they interviewed reflected a diverse range of household and family profiles: couples with and without children, older and younger children, the pre-retirement phase, a range of incomes, and labour market areas across England more and less affected by the recession. A final sample of 17 households was produced and in-depth interviews were conducted with the couple-member who had experienced job loss and, where possible, the partner. Wherever possible, couple-members were interviewed separately to allow participants the opportunity to express their personal views most freely.

The deposited data collection contains 30 interviews, each about 45 minutes in length. The data collection was released in 2015 from the UK Data Service subject to a Special Licence.

Archiving challenges

The researchers asked participants for consent both for the research itself and for sharing their data after the project.

One of the Principal Investigators, Dr. Karon Gush explained that their data would be anonymised and that it would be deposited at the UK Data Archive. Though some researchers are hesitant to ask for consent to share, in this case, Dr. Gush said consent was simply “not a problem”. Verbal consent from participants was recorded.

Other archiving challenges with this project were to anonymise the data and apply optimal access conditions. The most common procedure for reducing the risks of disclosure is to anonymise the data. Of course, careful judgement was required to apply the level of anonymisation most appropriate for this particular data.

Dr. Gush was sensitive to many factors while doing the anonymisation. She had to ensure that all confidentiality commitments to her respondents were maintained. In addition, she said: “I am a researcher myself so I want to make sure that the data is as useful as it can possibly be because if it’s not, then I’m somehow still doing a disservice to my respondents.”

The anonymisation process

The research team members went through the transcripts and removed certain types of identifying data, such as names, places of work, and geographic areas; this was a time-consuming process. Dr. Gush would offer the following advice to other qualitative researchers looking to deposit and share data in the UK Data Archive:

Anonymisation should be thought about at the beginning and should be seen as ‘part and parcel’ of the whole project… and the anonymisation process should be completed as you go along and not left until the end.

Regarding access conditions, it was decided to make the data available using a Special Licence. Under this kind of licence, a potential user is required not only to register with the UK Data Service, but also to complete a detailed application form and agree to additional restrictions on data handling and usage. The use of the Special Licence then made it possible to apply a minimal level of anonymisation, thus reducing loss of data quality.

At-a-glance: Dr. Gush approach to this difficult balancing act

  • Anonymisation was considered at the start of the project and completed as the project went along.
  • Data that identified individuals were removed from transcripts.
  • The data were made available under Special Licence to reduce loss of data quality.

Additional outputs

The study led to a paper entitled  Households’ responses to spousal job loss: ‘all change’ or ‘carry on as usual’?. Dr. Gush has also been on the Radio 4’s ‘Thinking Allowed’ series discussing the research and has written a piece for The Conversation called Why we stick our heads in the sand about the risk of unemployment.

Read on

Learn more about anonymisation within the UK Data Service