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Super-secure census data enclave opens at ISR

Part of the U.S. Bureau of the Census moved into the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) Sept. 9 when Bureau Director C. Louis Kincannon officially opened the Michigan Census Research Data Center.

A joint project of the bureau’s Center for Economic Studies and U-M, the new center allows qualified researchers with projects approved by the Census Bureau to access confidential, unpublished data from Ann Arbor.
U.S. Census Bureau Director C. Lewis Kincannon (left) cuts the ribbon opening the Census Bureau's Center for Economic Studies. Matthew Shapiro, senior advisor for the Michigan Census Research Data Center, looks on. (Photo by Greg Fox)

“This Research Data Center allows us to engage researchers outside of Washington in using this very important data while also protecting the public’s rights to privacy,” Kincannon said in brief remarks before cutting the ribbon across the door and leading a one-time-only tour of the new center.

The super-secure facility balances the need for research using the bureau’s economic and demographic microdata with the need to safeguard its confidentiality. The center’s senior advisor is U-M economist Matthew Shapiro.

“Michigan is renowned for its research in empirical social science,” Shapiro said, “and for many contributions to economic and social measurement. This center provides unique opportunities to study the behaviors of individuals and firms that are obscured by more aggregated data.”

Among the data sets that could be available through the facility are the long-form Decennial (10 year) Census and the Current Population Survey, the Economic Censuses, and specialized surveys on a range of topics from pollution abatement to crime victimization.

Emphasizing that it was an honor for the Census Bureau to have selected ISR as the newest site for a Research Data Center, ISR Director David Featherman observed that Ann Arbor has personal as well as many professional ties to the Census Bureau.

Martha Farnsworth Riche, a director during the Clinton administration, grew up here, and Barbara Bryant, a director during the first Bush administration, is affiliated with the U-M Business School. In addition, Featherman said, the ISR has pioneered the methods and technologies underlying surveys and censuses for more than half a century.

ISR Survey Research Center Director Robert Groves noted that the center established “a new threshold in relations between the U-M and the Census Bureau,” building on a decades-long tradition of U-M graduates pursuing their careers at the Census Bureau, and bureau employees receiving advanced training in statistics and survey methods through the Joint Program in Survey Methods with the U-M at the University of Maryland.

“Now, graduate students working on approved data center projects can learn about Census data early in their careers, and the bureau can benefit from whole careers shaped by those research interests,” Groves said.

To use the new center, which is one of four similar centers outside Washington, D.C., prospective researchers must submit a proposal that is reviewed by the Census Bureau and U-M. In addition to the researcher’s own goals, each approved project must provide value to the Census Bureau.

“Having experienced researchers scrutinize the data helps by giving us the kind of feedback we need to improve the quality of the data we collect,” Kincannon said. “In addition, this heightened scrutiny helps to elucidate what all these numbers really mean.”

Once a project is approved, the researcher and any collaborators then must obtain “special sworn status” by passing a security clearance and making a sworn statement about preserving the confidentiality of the data. The facility itself has been certified as secure by the Census Bureau and is staffed full-time by a Census Bureau employee, Christopher Kurz, who is also a Ph.D. candidate in economics.

In addition to an array of technical construction requirements for the walls and ceilings, the center is equipped with motion detectors, a security alarm and a security camera. All research results are screened to ensure that no confidential data are released inadvertently.

The facility has eight workstations for researchers. “Each workstation runs on a ‘Thin Client’ environment,” Kurz said, “which allows researchers to log in via a remote server to the Census Bureau Computing Center in Bowie, Md., where all data and programs reside.” This architecture allows users to access confidential data in read-only files, and if the physical security of the facility is ever breached, the data remains inaccessible to unauthorized users.

The National Science Foundation and several U-M units have provided funding for the first three years of the Michigan Census Research Data Center (MCRDC). Researchers seeking to access data in the MCRDC must submit a formal proposal to the Census Bureau. For more information, visit http://www.isr.umich.edu/src/mcrdc/mcrdc.html.



 
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