Working with data

Your data are some of your most valuable assets, so as you work with them it's worth investing some effort in keeping them safe. To do this, consider what risks your data might face, and what actions might be performed to mitigate those risks.

Preventing loss and corruption

Files can be lost in many different ways:

  • A departing student or researcher may take data with them without leaving a copy
  • The hardware on which they are kept may be stolen
  • The hardware on which they are kept may be damaged by accident or through a disaster such as a fire or flood.

Even if they remain available, they can occasionally become corrupted. If a file is severely corrupted it may be unusable, but even subtle corruption may introduce errors which go unnoticed while affecting the outcome of your research.

Things to think about

  • Regular backups: If you back up your data to several different locations on a regular basis, you can easily restore a copy if your working set gets corrupted or lost. Some storage options include automated tools that take care of this for you. If you need to decide how often to back up, think about the maximum number of days' work you would be prepared to lose.
  • Checksum tools: A checksum is a file's digital signature, which can then be used to detect unexpected changes in their contents.
  • Non-digital data: If you have data which are not kept on a computer, you should make sure they are protected too.

For more information, see the following guidance:

Preventing unauthorised access

In many cases, you may wish to restrict access to your data to a specific list of individuals. This might be because it is commercially sensitive to you or an industrial partner, or includes sensitive personal information covered by the Data Protection Act.

If you are collecting or using research data about individuals, you should read the University's Data Protection guidance, which includes information about academic research and data security.

Things to think about

  • Legal requirements: You may be under legal and/or contractual obligations to protect your data. If you're not sure, you can discuss this with the University's legal advisers, who can give you advice on your collaboration or consortium agreements and laws such as the Data Protection Act.
  • Use of secure systems: One way to restrict access is to use a password-protected system such as the University's research storage (X drive). Commercial services such as Dropbox may be convenient, but are unlikely to provide sufficient protection against unauthorised access.
  • Secure passwords: Passwords are often the weak link in any secure system. Make sure you choose passwords that are long and difficult to guess. Writing them down is acceptable, as long as you protect your written-down password very well, just like you would with your house or car keys.
  • Encryption: Encrypting a file, folder or device ensures that the contents can only be read by someone who has the key. This can help to provide an additional level of security for sensitive data.
  • Collaboration with external partners: You may need to share data with people or organisations external to the University. Options for doing this include encrypted email, a trusted courier, and setting up temporary University accounts for partners.

For more information, see the following guidance:

Ensuring usability

Even if data remain available and intact, they may be rendered useless if no-one understands them or remembers how to process them. Students and staff arrive and leave on a regular basis, and often it can seem easier to repeat a whole set of expensive experiments rather than try to understand data left behind by researchers who have left the university.

Things to think about

  • Organising data: Establish some conventions for organising your data so when you need something in particular, you know where to look. Make a note of these conventions in an index file, for the benefit of others and yourself in case you need reminding later on.
  • Documenting data: Record information about the structure and format of your data and the process you went through to obtain it. In some cases this can be stored in the data files themselves; if not, it can be stored in a "readme" document in the same folder as the data.
  • Using standards: Be aware of standard file formats and standard nomenclature (such as letters used for variables) used in your field. Consider using files in open formats so that they can be read by a variety of software.

For more information, see the following guidance: