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A Data Goldmine for Researchers

Story by
Nancy Joseph
September 2012Perspectives Newsletter

The Northwest Census Research Data Center (NWCRDC) looks like any other computer lab. The room is plain, the workstations nondescript. But for researchers seeking access to classified data about American households, the Center is a beautiful thing to behold.

NWCRDC, housed at the UW, officially opens September 24, joining an exclusive network of 13 research data centers (RDCs) across the nation. RDCs provide access to restricted data from demographic, economic, public health, and household surveys. Established through a joint operating agreement with the federal government, the centers serve as remote facilities of the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The Census Bureau runs a whole host of surveys,” explains Mark Ellis, UW professor of geography and director of the NWCRDC. “There are population surveys, but also surveys about housing, manufacturing, service jobs…a whole host of things designed to take the pulse of American society and American activity. The insights these data can provide are huge.”

Northwest Census Research Data Center 1

"The insights these data can provide are huge," says Mark Ellis, director of the Northwest Census Research Data Center. Media credit: Jacob Lambert

In addition to its own data, the Census Bureau links to data from other federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Labor, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). State records, such as birth and death certificates, are also linked, providing a wealth of information.

“Let’s say you’re looking at health care costs,” says Ellis. “Having access to CDC and Medicare data as well as death certificates allows you to tease out things that you could not otherwise. You can separate out geographic effects from individual effects. The precision is much greater.” Proposed future projects using RDC data include a study of wage ordinances’ influence on poverty levels; globalization’s effects on declining trade costs; the impact of tolling on Puget Sound’s low-income and minority populations; and the relationship between socioeconomic status and obesity rates in Seattle-King County.

Ellis acknowledges that access to classified information raises privacy concerns. For this reason, researchers must undergo a full background check and be sworn in before they can use the Center. Once approved, they can access restricted data— and programs to analyze the data—through an encrypted VPN (virtual private network) connection to Census Bureau servers from each of the Center’s 16 workstations.

“You can’t take in a laptop or camera,” says Ellis. “You can’t download anything. Before you can take anything out, Census Bureau disclosure review staff must review it; they only grant permission when they are sure there will be no violation of privacy. Anything you print out must be logged and reviewed by the Center’s administrator —a Census Bureau employee who works at the NWCRDC. To ensure privacy rights, you can’t use information so specific that people would be able to recognize an individual or institution. It’s a serious business with a serious fine: $250,000 and a five-year prison term.”

Ellis has experienced the process firsthand. For a study of residential segregation of mixed race couples in the U.S., he needed information at the neighborhood level. The information was available only through the Census Bureau’s restricted data sets, requiring trips to RDCs in Los Angeles and Berkeley. “It was fine to go to these locations for a while, but it gets old,” he says.

When Ellis got word that Washington State’s Office of Financial Management (OFM) was interested in establishing an RDC in Seattle, he was thrilled. He brought the College of Arts and Sciences, Provost’s Office, and School of Social Work on board; all three joined OFM in providing startup funds. Ellis then wrote a National Science Foundation grant, securing an additional $300,000.

“That’s a relatively small part of the overall costs, but it is a validation since the NSF proposal was reviewed by both researchers and the Census Bureau to ensure that it was viable,” says Ellis. Ellis’s next goal is to get the word out to researchers at the UW and beyond. To kick things off, NWCRDC will host an opening celebration and symposium on September 24, with presentations by Census Bureau representatives and UW faculty.

“I don’t want researchers to get discouraged by the proposal review and security clearances required to use the Center,” says Ellis. “If they persist, they will find that the benefits of this Center are fantastic.”