1. Broad description
Access to anonymised unit record data is provided to researchers in a secure environment within the regional offices of Statistics New Zealand (SNZ).
Access to microdata is governed by the provisions of the New Zealand Statistics Act 1975, and is implemented in accordance with SNZ's microdata access protocols (see www.stats.govt.nz/about-us/policies-and-guidelines/general/microdata-access-protocols.htm). All microdata access requests are subject to the approval of the Government Statistician.
Microdata access can be supplied to New Zealand government departments for bona fide research or statistical purposes, or to researchers contracted to SNZ (who must provide some output from their work that is of direct value to the Official Statistics System), and to other government agencies and bodies in New Zealand when data has been collected jointly. The Government Statistician can also permit access to microdata when written consent has been obtained from all the people who supplied the data.
To request access to unit record data through the data laboratory, a researcher must complete an application form which includes adequate detail on the nature of the intended research, what variables are required, and the proposed outcomes of the research, such as publications, presentations, or a contribution to ongoing research. An initial application form is completed by the applicant. This is assessed by relevant staff of SNZ, who will work with the applicant to produce a final application that is feasible and complies with the department's microdata access criteria. Once an application is in a form which meets the department's criteria, it is submitted to the Government Statistician, who makes a decision to approve or refuse the request. If an application is refused on some grounds, the applicant can address that issue and resubmit an altered application.
2. Why is it good practice?
The data laboratory balances the need to ensure that New Zealanders have confidence in SNZ's ability to protect their identities and personal information with the value this information has for conducting research and developing Government policy.
The data laboratory gives sophisticated researchers access to unit record data that is not otherwise available. The rigorous process for approving applications ensures that the provisions of the Statistics Act 1975 are always taken into account when access to unit record data is granted, and that access to the unit record data is necessary for the proposed work.
A number of techniques are used to limit the disclosure risk. Unit record data are anonymised and modified to protect respondent identities. Data sets are made available in a secure physical and computing environment to prevent unauthorised access to the data. Statistical outputs generated in the data laboratory are checked to guard against disclosure risks. Finally, all papers and reports produced based on data laboratory research are checked prior to publication.
3. Target audience
The data laboratory is aimed at researchers and analysts working in New Zealand. In some instances a visiting foreign academic, who can point to benefits to New Zealand's Official Statistical System from their study, may be given consideration.
4. Detailed description
The following steps outline the assessment and approval process that follows the receipt of an initial data laboratory application form. During this process, staff at SNZ and the researchers seeking access to microdata may be involved in frequent communication. The data laboratory administrator coordinates communication and ensures that agreements and decisions are recorded.
- The subject-matter area (SMA) unit responsible for the data to which access is requested examines the proposal in terms of the fitness for purpose of the proposed data set and variables requested for the study. Depending on the basis for permitting access to the microdata relevant issues may include sample sizes, data quality, confidentiality, and whether the research will benefit the official statistical system. SMA staff provide an assessment, and the manager of the SMA unit then makes a recommendation on whether the requested access to microdata should be approved or not.
- The Statistical Methods unit examines the proposal for potential breaches of confidentiality, and specifies modifications to the data (typically removal or aggregation of geographic variables and randomisation of IDs) to minimise these risks. The manager of the Statistical Methods unit then makes a recommendation on whether the requested access to microdata should be approved or not.
- A staff member from Strategic and Financial Services determines if the application is consistent with the requirements of the Statistics Act 1975 and SNZ's microdata access protocols.
- The Microdata Access Manager prepares a summary of the issues raised for consideration by senior management.
- The Group Manager responsible for the SMA provides their comments, and a recommendation to the Government Statistician to approve or reject the requested access to microdata.
- The Government Statistician approves or rejects the application for microdata access through the data laboratory. The researcher is then advised of the decision. If the application is refused, the researcher will be notified of the reasons for the refusal. The researcher can subsequently resubmit an application. This is usually done after modifying the proposal to address the particular grounds for refusal. If the proposal is accepted, the SMA unit creates a customised data set designed to provide only the information needed for the research. Statistical Methods staff check this data set before it is copied to the data laboratory. A contract is drafted and signed prior to researchers beginning their work. The restrictions on how data may be used are set out in the contract, and these obligations are made clear to each user who is given access to data. All researchers must also sign the statutory declaration of secrecy, required under the Statistics Act 1975, before beginning to work with the data. Once an agreement has been signed, changes such as the addition of new researchers to the agreement, are managed by way of letter of variation. Signatory rights are limited to Deputy Government Statistician level.
- While research is underway, Statistical Methods staff check all outputs to ensure that there are no confidentiality breaches. All draft publications are also submitted to SNZ for checking.
5. Supporting legislation
The release of microdata into the data laboratory environment is governed by the Statistics Act 1975.
(i) The data laboratory allows for access to the most detailed data available for users working within the secure environment.
(ii) Contracts provide a legal framework to ensure confidentiality protection for these data sets.
(iii) Sanctions can be applied to users and organizations that breach the agreements, and this helps to ensure use of data sets is appropriate.
(i) Researchers complain that the timeframe for approval is too lengthy. SMAs have found that it can be difficult to balance their regular work programme with the uneven demands placed on them by data laboratory projects.
(ii) The recovery of costs for access, support and initial data set development is problematic for some academic researchers.
(iii) The care and attention given to the approval of proposals and the checking of outputs can be expensive and time-consuming.
Statistics Act 1975: www.legislation.govt.nz/
Microdata access protocols: www.stats.govt.nz/about-us/policies-and-guidelines/general/microdata-access-protocols.htm
30 Aug 2013