DRE is open source but secure: ideal for international collaborations

The Azure DRE offers Radboudumc data analyst Wynand Alkema a secure environment to store and analyze data. In patient-oriented medical research, he has to deal with stricter privacy issues than the commercial research on food projects he also does. He has, therefore, used Azure DRE as a perk when writing a grant proposal for an international consortium.

Wynand Alkema works part-time as a data analyst for Radboudumc’s Center for Molecular Biomolecular Informatics (CMBI). This center focuses on bioinformatics, comparative genomics, bacterial genomics, computational discovery and design, and protein structure bioinformatics. One day in the week, Wynand does fundamental research for the CMBI.

Getting acquainted with Azure DRE

For his CMBI-related projects, he uses data from EPIC, Radboudumc’s electronic patient files. Thanks to the Digital Research Environment – known as Azure DRE – he can access this privacy-sensitive data without harming the patients privacy. The portal allows researchers to analyze pseudonymized patient information. Without the Azure DRE, only medical staff would be permitted to access this data.

“I’m responsible for setting up and managing a bioinformatics service facility at the CMBI. You could say I’m the middleman between the lab technicians and data stewards. Lab technicians and clinicians are experimentalists and not always familiar with data streams and virtual applications. Many researchers use Excel sheets to store data and know little about how to use statistic applications.”

No more manual analyses

“I help facilitate the use of Azure DRE. I write applications to make it easier for the researchers at the center to use Azure DRE.” As an example, Wynand mentions that his colleagues need to sift through 20,000 documents filled with patient-related information. "Manually examining this data is no longer an option. I wrote an algorithm that does this for them and presents the results clearly and concisely within Azure DRE.”

Although most researchers see the benefit, many also still need to get used to using Azure DRE. “They have to log in, download a program; for some researchers, this is daunting. But this is also due to the strict privacy regulations. You have to jump through hoops to comply with them. I’m sure once they use Azure DRE more often, it will get easier and quicker.”

Open but secure

Wynand Alkema also works as a contract researcher for, among others, NIZO. Here he is responsible for the acquisition and execution of big data-driven projects for clients in the food and health sector. The data used in this research is not so much connected to patients; meaning the data is a lot less privacy-sensitive. They have less need for all the precautions that DRE offers. However one of the advantages, scaling up computer power, could be usefull for them as well.

“Another difference with commercial use is the philosophy of data,” explains Wynand. “Data can be stored and analyzed in a cloud-based environment that is only accessible for internal users. In commercial research, data has value that needs to be protected. The philosophy in academic research is to share data for reuse: the FAIR data principle. Your data needs to be open to external researchers but more secure. And Azure DRE offers that. Thanks to pseudonymization, authorization of access, and an audit trail of users, data is protected but still available to researchers. And that anytime and anywhere in the world."

A great extra

These are just some of the reasons why Wynand Alkema decided to include access to DRE when applying for a grant for an international consortium. “In such a grant application, we can let the grantors know that at Radboudumc, we have a virtual portal with which to store, share and analyze data with all researchers that will participate in such a large project. And we don’t just have the facility, but also an entire department to support and maintain it. It’s a great extra to offer during a grant proposal.”

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