New census center opens doors to research

A new center at the U makes non-public data available to approved researchers.

Evelina Smirnitskaya

In order to gain access to restricted U.S. Census Bureau data, Carolyn Liebler had to go through a grueling year-long process of forms, interviews and training.

The assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota wrote a 25-page proposal and underwent a background check and several online training sessions in order to use the unpublished data in her research on multicultural identity in the census âÄî but she said it was worth it.

“IâÄôll use it for the rest of my career,” she said.

Her approval came in time for the opening of the Minnesota Census Research Data Center, a joint project of the Census Bureau and the University. The center has been operating since June but will hold its grand opening Wednesday morning.

Previously, University and other approved researchers had to travel to Chicago or farther to get the restricted data. The new center will supply researchers and federal agencies with non-public data for individual projects and follow strict confidentiality and disclosure procedures.

The data comes from the Census Bureau and other federal agencies.

The center is within the Minnesota Population Center, housed in Willey Hall. All data is available through a restricted server that can be accessed only from within the center.

The center is staffed by a census employee and two University staff co-directors.

MPC members wrote the proposal for the center. MPC will also provide administrative support to the center and some funding, said Catherine Fitch, the co-director of the new center and an associate director at the MPC.

The majority of the funding for the project is split between the Census Bureau and the UniversityâÄôs Office of the Vice President for Research, with additional funding provided by the National Science Foundation.

Currently there are 25 researchers âÄî primarily University faculty âÄî working on 16 projects in fields like demographics, economics, health services and business, all of which benefit from using private census data.

Public Census Bureau data is formatted in broad categories to preserve confidentiality, omitting any individual-identifying details.

“The problem for researchers,” Fitch said, “is that sometimes that information is quite valuable.”

In order to obtain data from the center, researchers must submit a proposal providing proof of scientific merit, demonstrating a need for non-public data and describing disclosure of the research results to avoid possible risks. The proposal must also show possible benefits to Census Bureau programs.

“The whole idea is to leverage academic expertise on projects that help the Census Bureau,” Ron Jarmin, chief economist of the Census Bureau, said.

Researchers must adhere to strict non-disclosure rules.

“They become sworn census employees when approved to do research,” U.S. Census Bureau Public Affairs Specialist Robert Bernstein said.

For researchers like Liebler, this could mean a several-thousand dollar fine, as well as a jail sentence, if confidentiality rules are broken.