Data Bonanza Behind Closed Doors
In Two UC "Safe Rooms," Half a Billion Census Records Will Be Available for Research
By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs
Two secure research rooms housing up to half a billion confidential records from the U.S. Census Bureau are being established on the Berkeley and UCLA campuses, making detailed microdata on American businesses, households and individuals available on the West Coast for the first time.
These facilities, known jointly as the California Census Research Data Center (CCRDC), have been created through a special agreement with the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Similar research centers are located in Pittsburgh and Boston, besides the main census facilities in Washington D.C. and Maryland.
The confidential records will be strictly safeguarded. Among other safety measures, CCRDC computer systems will be isolated from all other networks on or off campus. Only researchers cleared by the Census Bureau will be able to use the data, it was announced last week at opening ceremonies for Berkeley's portion of the center.
UCLA's companion room allows researchers in both Southern and Northern California to have access to the remarkable holdings, including numerous surveys of American businesses that are not released to the public.
With these records -- which cannot be taken from the locked rooms -- researchers will be able to answer critical questions concerning economic development and social policy in California. They can, for instance, study the impact of pollution requirements, local tax policy or technological investments on the growth of business.
They can determine if business is fleeing from a given region and analyze the causes of a rise or fall in the welfare rolls.
"This is an extraordinary facility for people who care about economic development and social policy," said Henry Brady, Berkeley professor of political science and public policy.
Brady shares the role of principal investigator of the new center with UCLA's Joseph Hotz, professor of economics and policy studies. Its co-principal investigators are David Card, Berkeley economics professor, and Robert Mare, UCLA professor of sociology. The managing director is Patrick Collins.
"California is the size of an entire country and, until now, we haven't had a statistical infrastructure that is at all adequate," said Brady. "This will allow California to look at economic growth, the well-being of its citizens and the performance of its programs with a level of geographical detail that will be useful."
Only researchers with projects approved by both the center and the Census Bureau will be allowed into the room. They will be subject to the same civil and criminal penalties that any employee of the Census Bureau would face for violating privacy laws. They also must pass an FBI background check and pay $15,000 per year for part-time use.
"This is not designed to serve the needs of business," said Brady. "Only projects with scientific research aims will be considered."
Researchers will not have access to individual names or addresses but will be able to correlate such factors as unemployment, income, welfare status, teenage birth and divorce at the household level.
"We will be scrupulously careful about confidentiality," said Brady. "None of these records can be taken from the room, and before anyone leaves, he or she must be checked out by a census employee trained in disclosure analysis," he said.
Funding for the data centers comes from the NSF, the National Institute on Aging, the State of California, the California Policy Research Center and campus administration.
The secure rooms are centrally located on the Berkeley and UCLA campuses and should be ready for use in March or April, but research proposals are being accepted now. Information can be obtained by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the CCRDC web site: www.ccrdc.ucla.edu.