Grant to fund census database

by Mike Wereschagin

Thanks to a $3.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the University’s Historical Census Project will bring the world to Minnesota.
The money will be used to create the largest and most comprehensive international census database, said history professor Steve Ruggles, the project’s director.
“We’ve already created the biggest human database in the world,” Ruggles said. The database contains limited U.S. population data from 1850 to 1990.
The census project has already received $12 million in NSF grants. The most recent grant, received earlier this month, is the largest the census project has ever received, Ruggles said.
The existing census database will be expanded to include census information from at least 50 other countries over the same period of time, according to a University statement.
Now could be the last opportunity to preserve this information, Ruggles said.
“The problem is that the census data for a lot of the world is on aging five-track computer tapes from the 1960s,” he said. “There is a real risk of it disappearing forever.”
Ruggles and 45 others working on the project will spend the next five years collecting, preserving and harmonizing some of the aging information into a readable format for future research.
“Right now we’re picking out the first 10 countries to work on,” Ruggles said. “For instance, we know that Canada and Mexico are two of the countries we’ll begin with. So if someone 50 years down the road wants to research the effects of NAFTA, they will be able to do so easily and accurately.”
A census project of this size and scope has never been attempted, Ruggles said.
“In the 1960s, the United Nations Center for Latin American Studies tried to do something like this for Latin America, but they didn’t do a very good job,” he said. But he added that the limited technology available at that time severely limited the database’s scope.
“What makes our project different is that we’re doing the whole world instead of just one continent,” Ruggles said. “And we’re not just doing this for 1990s data, we’re doing it for a much greater time span. We have data for some countries that reaches back into the 18th century.”
Ruggles said the $3.5 million grant will cover the first five years as researchers select the countries for the database. After that, the project will take another five years and at least another $3.5 million to finish, Ruggles said.
“When we’re done, we’ll have the most comprehensive, accurate data in existence on 50 or 60 countries,” he said.

Mike Wereschagin welcomes comments at wereschagi[email protected]. He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3226.