Secure Data Analytics Platform, ERICA, Brings Better Health Outcomes

The ERICA Platform is a fully scalable and secure online environment, created to enable people to analyse health related and other highly sensitive data.
An ambulance speeding through the streets with the lights on

When you’re in an ambulance after a suspected stroke, every minute matters. You want a quick diagnosis and the right treatment.

Health professionals have observed that after a stroke, women were not recovering as well as men – they had higher rates of disability and death.

To get to the bottom of this puzzle, health researchers at The George Institute for Global Health in Sydney used the new, secure and powerful cloud-based platform, ERICA, which stands for E-Research Institutional Cloud Architecture. ERICA enables researchers to analyse huge datasets while adhering to strict ethics guidelines.

With ERICA, the researchers were able to pull together and analyse detailed and sensitive datasets related to more than 200,000 patients in a safe, secure environment. The data included hospital records from all hospitals and day procedure centres in New South Wales, and NSW ambulance records.

Their analysis revealed that women were less likely to receive stroke‐specific management in the ambulance. This valuable finding is now informing paramedic training to help them better spot stroke symptoms in women.

ERICA Has Transformed How Researchers Solve Problems

According to Professor Louisa Jorm, Director of the Centre for Big Data Research in Health, who is leading the national expansion of ERICA through the ARDC, the platform has transformed how researchers and data analysts can solve big, complex problems that have life-or-death consequences.

“Prior to now the secure data infrastructure didn’t exist that could link together records from ambulances, hospitals and historical health data,” said Prof Jorm.

“In the case of the research into stroke, we’ve been able to compare the diagnosis patients were given when they arrived in hospital with what the ambulance paramedics had assessed and the treatment provided in the ambulance.

“As a result, paramedics and clinicians are being upskilled in what they can do to increase the accuracy of early identification of stroke, particularly in female patients.”

Researchers looking at their laptop and discussing in a lab

Secure, Ethical Research at Scale

ERICA is a fully scalable and secure online environment, created to enable people to analyse health-related and other highly sensitive data. The platform is approved by eHealth NSW under the Privacy and Security Assurance Framework, and Commonwealth Infosec Registered Assessor Program certification is underway.

ERICA provides a secure environment, like a virtual data laboratory, for projects to conduct analyses safely and securely.

Researchers can access the computational power of ERICA from anywhere and, because it uses Amazon Web Services, there’s no limit to the physical infrastructure; for example, there’s no need to buy, install and configure larger servers to hold data.

ERICA Project Manager Phi Nguyen explains: “We don’t have the limitations of physical infrastructure to spin up, or buy and house. And when we finish a project, the capability is transferable as well. So, there’s a lot of flexibility for us to be able to move projects, create new environments. 

“For example, if someone needs a graphical processing unit or a lot more compute power, then we can create it really quickly rather than having to go out and procure something. There’s nothing similar in the research space, as far as secure environments are concerned,” he said.

Without secure data laboratories like ERICA, research into critical health issues isn’t possible. Conservative estimates put the recent impact of ERICA as enabling over $8 million worth of grants through the Medical Research Future Fund. The future fund is a $20 billion long-term investment in Australian health and medical research.

ERICA Gets to the Heart of Shared Data

A team of Australian doctors and university researchers with a focus on heart health are also using ERICA. They are creating an Australian cardiovascular data resource that allows researchers to access ongoing linked data, with appropriate privacy and security protections.

ERICA has been a key enabler to the establishment of the CardiacAI project, a unique electronic medical record data resource for cardiovascular research… (it) has allowed us to gain the trust of local health districts and ethics committees in our ability to keep patient data secure.

Vicky Blake, Data Manager/Analyst, Eastern Heart Clinic

Uptake by Universities and Government Agencies

ERICA has hundreds of users in organisations such as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the New South Wales Data and Analytics Centre, and the Western Australia Department of Health. At UNSW, where ERICA began, there are now 57 enthusiastic users.

Medical Records Next Up for ERICA

While sensitive data is analysed in all sectors, the health sector is the most significant area for innovation, according to Phi Nguyen. His focus now for ERICA is electronic medical records (eMR) in hospitals, which track patients’ care while at hospital.

“These medical records hold really complex and large data. They contain things like free-text data from clinical notes, images, ECGs, physiological readouts from machines,” said Mr Nguyen.

“These multimodal datasets, made of many different data types, are massive in size, and it requires lots of computing power to bring to life what data analysts want to create, such as predictive analytics using AI techniques, machine learning. 

“To realise the potential benefits from analysing this data, you need ERICA because of its combination of computing power and security, which makes it unique,” he said.

Learn more about the ERICA platform

The ARDC is continuing to address the health and medical data challenges associated with secure data access, data integration and advanced analysis through the People Research Data Commons.

ERICA received co-investment ( from the ARDC. It is led by UNSW in partnership with the ARDC, The University of Melbourne, Intersect Australia, NSW Data Analytics Centre, The George Institute Australia, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, SA-NT Datalink, The University of Adelaide, University of South Australia, University of Western Australia, and the Population Health Research Network.

Written by Claire Harris, Innovate Communicate. Reviewed by Mary O’Callaghan, Jo Savill, Dr Adrian Burton, Dr Kristan Kang, Kerry Levett, Catherine Brady.