1. Broad description
Research Data Centres (RDCs) offer qualified researchers restricted access to confidential economic and demographic data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in its surveys and censuses. All projects must offer benefits to U.S. Census Bureau programmes. These projects are carried out at U.S. Census Bureau headquarters, or at one of eight other secure locations around the U.S.
2. Why is it good practice?
The statutory provisions under which the U.S. Census Bureau collects data prevent the release of the full details of survey data (e.g. names, addresses) in order to protect the confidentiality of respondents. The microdata provided by businesses are never released to the public; public use microdata samples of household surveys include limitations on geography, topcodes on income, collapsing of occupational categories, and so forth. Nevertheless, some research would benefit from access to this additional information. A 'research enclave' where data dissemination is tightly controlled allows the estimation of statistical models based on the full data set.
3. Target audience
RDCs are aimed at researchers in academia; at independent research organizations such as the National Bureau of Economic Research; and in federal, state, and local government agencies. Tabulations of confidential data are generally not allowed to be removed from the RDCs, and therefore estimation of statistical models is the focus of their activities. All researchers are required to become Special Sworn Status employees of the U.S. Census Bureau, and as such are subject to the penalty provisions of its authorizing legislation (e.g. a fine of US$250,000), should there be a confidentiality violation.
4. Detailed description
The objective of the U.S. Census Bureau and the RDCs is to increase the utility and quality of U.S. Census Bureau data products. Access to microdata encourages knowledgeable researchers to become familiar with U.S. Census Bureau data products and data collection methods. More importantly, providing qualified researchers access to confidential microdata enables research projects that would not be possible without access to respondent-level information. This increases the value of data that has already been collected. Access to the microdata also allows for data linking that is not possible with aggregates - both cross-survey linkages and longitudinal linkages. These linkages leverage the value of existing data. Creative use of microdata can address important policy questions without the need for additional data collection.
In addition, the best means by which the U.S. Census Bureau can check the quality of the data it collects, edits, and tabulates is to make its microdata records available in a controlled, secure environment to sophisticated users who, by employing the microdata records in the course of rigorous analysis, will uncover the strengths and weaknesses of those records. Each set of observations is the end result of many decision rules covering definitions, classifications, coding procedures, processing rules, editing rules, disclosure rules, and so forth. The validity and consequences of all these decision rules only become evident when the U.S. Census Bureau's micro databases are tested in the course of analysis. Exposing the conceptual and processing assumptions that are embedded in the U.S. Census Bureau's micro databases to the light of research constitutes a core element in the U.S. Census Bureau's commitment to quality.
The opportunities for researchers to carry out unique research come at a price. Research conducted at RDCs takes place under a set of rules and limitations that are considerably more constraining than those prevailing in typical research environments. The process is described below.
Working closely with an RDC administrator, researchers develop a preliminary research proposal that includes information about the researcher(s), site where the research will be carried out, its purpose, funding source, requested data sets, desired software, a brief narrative description of the research project and proposed benefits to the U.S. Census Bureau. The researcher enters this information via the online proposal management system. Once a preliminary proposal has been submitted, the RDC administrator reviews it and advises the researcher of any suggestions for improvement or refinement. The administrator must approve the preliminary proposal before the researcher can submit a final proposal to the U.S. Census Bureau's Center for Economic Studies (CES) for final review.
Research proposals submitted to CES are reviewed on the basis of five major criteria:
• Benefit to U.S. Census Bureau programmes. Proposals must demonstrate that the research is likely to provide one or more benefits to the U.S. Census Bureau. These benefits can include:
- Understanding and/or improving the quality of data produced through a Title 13, Chapter 5 survey, census, or estimate Title 13 is the U.S. Census Bureau's authorizing legislation;
- Leading to new or improved methodology to collect, measure, or tabulate a Title 13, Chapter 5 survey, census, or estimate;
- Enhancing the data collected in a Title 13, Chapter 5 survey or census, for example
- Improving imputations for non-response, or developing links across time or entities for data gathered in censuses and surveys authorized by Title 13, Chapter 5;
- Identifying the limitations of, or improving, the underlying Business Register, Household Master Address File, and industrial and geographical classification schemes used to collect the data;
- Identifying shortcomings of current data, collection programmes and/or documenting new data collection needs;
- Constructing, verifying, or improving the sampling frame for a census or survey authorized under Title 13, Chapter 5;
- Preparing estimates of population and characteristics of population as authorized under Title 13, Chapter 5;
- Developing a methodology for estimating non-response to a census or survey authorized under Title 13, Chapter 5; and
- Developing statistical weights for a survey authorized under Title 13, Chapter 5.
• Scientific merit. This criterion relates to the project's likelihood of contributing to existing knowledge. Evidence that a federal agency such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health has approved the proposal for support constitutes one indication of scientific merit.
• Clear need for non-public data. The proposal should demonstrate the need for and importance of non-public data. The proposal should explain why publicly available data sources are not sufficient to meet the proposal's objectives.
• Feasibility. The proposal must show that the research can be conducted successfully with the methodology and requested data.
• Risk of disclosure. Output from all research projects must undergo and pass disclosure review.
- Tabular and graphical output presents a higher risk to disclosure of confidential information than do coefficients from statistical models.
- The U.S. Census Bureau is required by law to protect the confidentiality of data collected under its authorizing legislation.
- Some data files are collected under the sponsorship of other agencies. In providing restricted access to these data, the U.S. Census Bureau Center for Economic Studies (CES) must adhere to all applicable laws and regulations.
- Researchers may be required to sign non-disclosure documents of survey sponsors or other agencies that provide data for their research projects.
Both U.S. Census Bureau and external experts on subject matter, data sets and disclosure risk review all proposals. Relevant data sponsors and data custodians also review proposals that request certain data sets. Any proposals seeking to use data sets that contain Federal Tax Information must also be reviewed for approval by the Internal Revenue Service.
All of the actual processing of data for approved proposals is conducted on servers located in the U.S. Census Bureau's secure central computer facility. Researchers located in the RDCs use 'thin client' terminals to access these servers via encrypted communication lines.
5. Supporting legislation
Title 13, United States Code, permits the U.S. Census Bureau to employ Special Sworn Status employees for the purpose of carrying out its mission. Specifically, Section 23(c) states:
"The Secretary of Commerce may utilize temporary staff, including employees of Federal, State, or local agencies or instrumentalities, and employees of private organizations to assist the Bureau in performing the work authorized by this title, but only if such temporary staff is sworn to observe the limitations imposed by section 9 of this title."
(i) As administrative data about individuals becomes more and more available through the Internet, statistical agencies must reduce the detail about individuals available through public use microdata. The availability of such data through the RDCs as research enclaves can help ensure that valuable research can continue.
(ii) Since business microdata has never been in the public domain, the RDCs allow microeconomic research on businesses that could not otherwise take place.
(iii) There is potential for expansion to allow the confidential data of other federal agencies to be available through the RDCs.
(i) Operating the RDCs has costs, some of which must be absorbed by the U.S. Census Bureau.
(ii) The proposal review process is cumbersome and time consuming, and the consequent delays in getting access to the data at the RDCs are frustrating to researchers.
(iii) All projects must, by law, have a benefit to the U.S. Census Bureau. Therefore, some worthy research projects with questionable benefits must be rejected.
The CES web site contains additional information about the RDC programme: http://www.ces.census.gov/ces.php/rdc#objectives.
Prepared by Dr. Daniel Weinberg, Chief, Center for Economic Studies, and Chief Economist, U.S. Census Bureau, October 13, 2005.
30 Aug 2013