Population center digitizes world’s census data

Nathan Hall

Wedged among a yoga center, a veterinarian’s office, a senior citizen gathering spot, an Episcopal Church and a gym on the West Bank campus sits history professor Steven Ruggles’ temporary office.

On the Cedar Riverside People’s Center’s fourth floor, some of the world’s most important census work is quietly being conducted.

Ruggles, who has worked for the University since 1985, founded the Minnesota Population Center three years ago. The center is currently working to digitize the entire world’s census data and post it on the Internet. Although it might never be completed, it is already the largest and most comprehensive international census database on the planet.

The approximately 100 staff members’ work is also spread out between Blegen and Heller Halls. The center is eventually planning to move to their new home on Willey Hall’s ground floor. Ruggles said the main reason his organization is so spread out is the gigantic amount of space needed for their daily computing.

“The science they are creating is incredibly important,” said Elizabeth Thompson, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Demography. “This work is key for creating all this knowledge being developed by the social science community.”

The center’s most famous accomplishment is inventing the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, which allowed social science researchers quicker access to more accurate and less cumbersome U.S. census databases. The series has been used by the U.S. Census Bureau and other census bureaus throughout the world.

Before Ruggles, social science researchers were frustrated with piecing together punch cards and reams of microfiche that were often blamed for inaccurate findings and wasted resources.

More than 9,000 journalists, scholars, educators and public policy researchers are now registered subscribers to their free service. The quantitative databases can then provide detailed information, including suicide and welfare statistics broken down by race, elderly living arrangements, the economic fallout from the North American Free Trade Agreement and marriage versus divorce rates.

“We considered registering it as a patented invention, but in the end it just turned out to be too much of a bureaucratic hassle,” Ruggles said. Three private companies also use Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Public Data Queries, Key Curriculum Press and Query Logic.

The numbers are not without their limitations. Many pre-1900 samples exclude slaves and American Indians, for example.

The tenured Ruggles is currently working on a book titled “Fragmentation of the American Family.” It theorizes that as Americans began working on a wage system, they became less dependant on traditional family structures. Because they were no longer dependant on their elders for inheritance or acreage, according to his book, the young upstarts transformed social hierarchy into a more democratic and egalitarian nation.

Ruggles has already secured more than $21 million in federal grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation for the center’s various projects. The center’s operating budget is $2.8 million a year. These funds will allow his team to compile an international database of uniformly coded censuses from over 20 countries including Iceland, Norway, the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico and portions of Latin America.

Ruggles said in many cases, the center convinced the countries his center would help organize their data in exchange for allowing his department to use it in their research.

The series’ program file is definitely not designed for the casual Web surfer or weekend genealogical enthusiast, clocking in at well over 25 gigabytes.

Ruggles, a McKnight and Robert J. Lapham award recipient, said the center’s work has been used in over 300 articles, 26 books and 80 dissertations. Ruggles himself has been featured in “Wired” and “USA Today,” among many other publications. There are only approximately 400 historical demographers in the United States.

Last year, Ruggles was offered a yearly salary of $185,000 to become director of the University of Michigan’s Inter-university Consortium for Political and Science Research, which houses the largest science data archive in the world. He turned down the offer and accepted a 44 percent salary raise to $130,000 per year to stay at the University.

“His ability to secure this level of funding is unparalled,” said Myron Gutmann, the current Inter-university Consortium for Political and Science Research director. “The University of Minnesota should really cherish that.”

The center is also currently working on several other projects, including the role of gender and work on Middle Eastern families, state and health survey data, and the decline of U.S. fertility rates between 1835 and the Depression. The center applies for at least eight federal grants per year.

“To us, this numerical data is the most satisfying,” said Matt Sobek, a population center research associate and self-professed data junkie. “This is what seems like what is most evident for us and I’ll take that over anecdotal theorizing any old day of the week.”

Nathan Hall covers University research and technology and welcomes comments at [email protected]