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Secure data storage for COVID-19 research

How anonymized data from COVID-19 patients can be shared reliably for research purposes using the Open Telekom Cloud

Wanted: high-security storage location complying with data protection regulations

Virtual representation of the globe, in front of it a cloud with a lock symbol.

One of the world’s largest public, machine-readable databases for X-ray images of COVID-19 patients is stored securely in the Open Telekom Cloud, in compliance with data protection regulations. Hannover Medical School (MHH) can thereby provide physicians, researchers, companies, and health institutions with data reliably to enable further research into the coronavirus.

Benefits for the customer

  • Access to anonymized COVID-19 patient data in compliance with data protection requirements enables all researches to fight against the coronavirus more quickly and efficiently
  • Transparent and efficient cost framework thanks to pay-as-you-go model
  • Cloud computing allows flexible storage resources and automatic scaling in the event of increasing data volumes and user numbers
  • Fit for the future: opportunity for innovations to gain additional new added value with the Open Telekom Cloud as the basis for AI-supported data analyses

Better assessing the course of the disease

PCR, antibody, or rapid test: Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, several test procedures have become established for detecting the virus SARS-CV-2 in the human body. However, such tests are sometimes have limitations in terms of the accuracy of analysis and the associated diagnosis process. Chest X-ray examinations and computed tomography (CT) provide more precise information, even if tests for a coronavirus infection come back negative. Physicians at Hannover Medical School also rely primarily on X-ray images in severe cases to be able to better assess the course of the disease in the event of a coronavirus infection, to detect possible complications at an early stage, and to act more quickly. While it is true that coronavirus cannot always be directly and unambiguously proven using the two- or three-dimensional images, typical changes in the lungs that indicate coronavirus can be identified. This means that every image may provide life-saving information.

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World’s largest public database for COVID-19 patient data

To enable physicians, researchers, companies, and health institutions worldwide to benefit from the COVID-19 data gathered and the findings gained as a result, the Hannover Medical School (MHH) team under Dr. Hinrich Winther, head of the Machine Learning working group, Prof. Jens Vogel-Claussen, Chief Physician, and Prof. Frank Wacker, Director of the Institute for Diagnostic and Interventional Radiology at MHH, decided in April 2020 to make X-ray images and additional information accessible worldwide for selected physicians, researchers, companies, and health institutes, while complying with data protection. All patient data is very sensitive and should therefore be accessible in a secure and anonymized way on the internet. The result was one of the world’s largest public databases with machine-readable, structured COVID-19 patient data. It serves as the basis for intelligent analyses right through to machine learning evaluations, with the potential to provide important information for researching and combatting the disease. And for avoiding new coronavirus infections in future.

Research and data protection – the basics

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As MHH supplements the X-ray images of the lungs with age data as well as patients’ blood and cell analyses, huge volumes of data are created. However, the development platform GitHub previously used by the team only enabled the storage of metadata. To be able to digitally process and store all X-ray images, considerably higher capacities were required. In terms of data security, the medical school also had considerable reservations about storing the data on a U.S. cloud platform. The data protection pledge lacking among large U.S. cloud providers is provided by the Open Telekom Cloud. The Open Telekom Cloud impressed MHH in particular because it was designed in accordance with the strict and proven security and data protection standards of Deutsche Telekom and because it is operated exclusively by T-Systems in Europe’s most modern high-security datacenter. MHH now uses the Open Telekom Cloud Object Storage Service (OBS) as a secure storage location in Germany.

The challenge

  • Scalable storage resources for public database with anonymized COVID-19 patient data
  • Secure and reliable storage location under German jurisdiction
  • Cloud services had to be highly secure and comply with the GDPR
  • The highest level of performance when accessing the database, particularly for physicians, researchers, companies, and health institutions, even with growing volumes of patient data

Cloud solution scalable to an almost unlimited extent if required

A cloud sweeps across a physician’s hand.

In its search for a suitable storage location, MHH quickly found the right solution with T-Systems: the Object Storage Service (OBS) from the Open Telekom Cloud. The provider’s cloud service enables all large data volumes to be saved in a fail-safe manner with minimal operational effort. The standard OBS solution includes automated backup, meaning that all data is automatically replicated and saved with high availability. The jointly concluded service level agreement provides for availability of up to 99.95 percent, which equates to an annual outage time of a maximum of just four hours in the event of 24/7 operation.

In practice, physicians, researchers, companies, and healthcare institutions access the metadata of the images and patient data via the internet in GitHub, and these are then loaded via a direct link from the Open Telekom Cloud. In order to work exclusively with data that does not allow any conclusions as to patient identity in line with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), MHH anonymizes personal data retrospectively at 30-day intervals and only shares value ranges instead of exact figures.

At present, around 100 users use the database per month, with that figure increasing. On average, they work with an average data volume of 200 gigabytes. For comparison: one X-ray image generally equates to 18 megabytes, and one CT image is almost one gigabyte. Should considerably more cloud users access the health data in future, the installation on the Open Telekom Cloud can be expanded with additional cloud resources as required at very short notice or might also be supplemented in future with application areas such as artificial intelligence. For MHH and all parties involved, yet another reason to have opted for the Open Telekom Cloud.

The solution

  • The Open Telekom Cloud Object Storage Service (OBS) stores personal data securely and in compliance with data protection
  • Data storage service for particularly large volumes of data and automatic scaling based on access
  • Automatic backup, high availability of up to 99.95 percent, high reliability, and load distribution across two redundant datacenter locations
  • 24/7 operation takes place exclusively by T-Systems in Europe’s most modern high-security datacenter and a maximum downtime of four hours per year is ensured

Secure storage of personal data

To prepare for the future, companies require four cornerstones: connectivity, cloud and IT infrastructure, security, and digitalization. T-Systems provides companies with end-to-end support to securely store data in the cloud.

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