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Approval of three new GA4GH standards supporting automation of the data access process

In order to leverage the vast genomic data and computational resources available today, data access and its ability to scale are crucial. The amount of genomic data generated around the globe is growing exponentially, which will lead to proportional increases in the number of data access requests.

The Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH) is an international consortium that is developing standards for responsibly collecting, storing, analyzing, and sharing genomic data in order to enable an “internet of genomics”.

The GA4GH Steering Committee has approved three new GA4GH standards. As part of a larger suite of deliverables, these standards serve as the blueprints for a federated network for responsible and secure genomic and health-related data exchange.

One of the approved standards is Data Repository Service (DRS) API, a standardized set of access methods that are agnostic to cloud infrastructure. The DRS API completes the suite of approved APIs from the GA4GH Cloud Work Stream, which work together to allow researchers to discover algorithms across different cloud environments and send them to datasets they wish to analyze.

The other two standards approved are the GA4GH Passports and Authentication & Authorization Infrastructure (AAI) specifications. These two standards work in conjunction to reliably authenticate a researcher’s digital identity and automate their access to a requested genomic dataset.

The new standards introduce a level of efficiency by supporting automation of the data access process. AAI lays the foundation for a federated mechanism for authenticating an individual’s identity and authorizing their access to an underlying dataset. Building on the OpenID Connect standard maintained by the OpenID Foundation, GA4GH’s AAI specification introduces the concept of an “access token” that can be passed around the internet and repurposed for subsequent data access requests without additional manual labor.

AAI provides the mechanism to have a user identify themselves by logging in and transporting claims about the user, Passports provide the data format to allow those user claims to be permissions related to datasets, user roles, resources, and more.

Working together with other DURI Work Stream standards, including the approved GA4GH Data Use Ontology (DUO), the Passports and AAI specifications standardize data access and use restrictions, streamline authorization and authentication processes, and aim to reduce the time (see video “Why DACs?”) DACs must spend to make data access decisions.

“We anticipate that the Passports and AAI specifications will further our progress towards improving data access by helping Data Access Committees and data services automate their processes,” said Tommi Nyrönen from ELIXIR Finland at CSC, co-lead of GA4GH DURI Work stream. “While DACs will still review data access requests, standardisation of the identity and access token content in Passports will significantly expedite the request process and move us closer towards automation. The standards make it easier to share and access data across the world, which helps advance our research and our collective understanding of human health and disease.”