October 31, 2011

ILR School Receives $3 Million To Improve Census Data

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The National Science Foundation will award three million dollars to Cornell’s Institute of Social and Economic Research and Labor and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations’ Labor Dynamic Institute over the next five years to improve the Census Bureau’s publication and organization of data.

The Census Bureau has confidential files that researchers from outside the bureau have difficulty accessing due to disorganization, according to Warren Brown, a research associate working on the project. Cornell is working to develop resources for outside researchers so that they can access and interpret the information better, he said

“We are one of eight successful grantees, and our grant is aimed at developing the tools and the training materials to prepare researchers outside of the Census Bureau to better utilize internal-use files,” Brown said.

Brown said that the grant would promote cutting edge research and allay specific concerns of the bureau.

“The Census Bureau, particularly the current director, Bob Groves, is concerned about the lack of scientific innovation and cutting edge research that is going on in the Census Bureau,” Brown said. “[Groves], working with the National Science Foundation, introduced this competitive grant program to further collaboration between leading researchers and Census Bureau personnel.”

The Cornell team started working on the project on Oct. 1.

Prof. John Abowd, labor economics, explained that the problem of researchers outside the bureau having trouble interpreting the bureau’s information has existed for years.

“The federal statistical system Abowd said.

“The goal is to acquire, archive and curate the information required to understand and reproduce scientific results that are based on confidential Census data,” Abowd said. “If we are successful, then 30, 50 or 100 years from now, it will be possible to recover the data used for important findings and reanalyze them in the light of what has been learned since.”

To work on the project, Cornell researchers must access confidential census data in a secured room on the second floor of the CISER building off campus on Pine Tree Road. The room is controlled by the federal government, and in order to enter the room, researchers must have an official badge issued by the Census Bureau, Brown said. Cornell is home to one of about 10 satellite offices of the Census Bureau in the United States, Brown said.

“It is hard to know what’s in there because the Census Bureau isn’t well known for great documentation. Our project will help bridge that divide,” Brown said

Stefan Kramer, the research data management librarian on the Cornell team, discussed the dilemma between the information available inside the confidential office and the information that is available to the public.

“The current problem with information about confidential Census Bureau data is that it is difficult for researchers to get information about what data is available to them. You have to go through a yearlong application process to study any database or spreadsheet,” he said. “You cannot get that on the outside of the Census data research, and when you’re on the inside, you don’t have access to the public Internet at all, so you can’t even see public information.”

Tracing Cornell’s history with the Census Bureau, Lars Vilhuber, a Cornell research associate and executive director of the Labor Dynamics Institute, stated in an email that this project is not the start of Cornell’s relationship with the organization. In fact, Abowd has been involved with the Census Bureau since 1998 and Vilhauber was first hired in 1999 before coming to Cornell, he said.

“[The project] is a natural extension of a long research collaboration,” Vilhuber said.

Cornell is one of eight schools working to make it easier for researchers to access Census Bureau information. The other schools are Carnegie-Mellon University, Duke University, Northwestern University, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Each school will be a research “node,” which means it will create a network of communication with the Census Bureau.

The nodes have been communicating with each other since the start of the project through conference calls. There will be a meeting in Washington in December, according to William Block, the director of CISER

“Some people might look at this kind of research and say, ‘Gee, is this really necessary?’ Well, what we’re doing is extracting from very expensive public use files, increasing insight and information that can be used to guide public policy. Right now, the clock is ticking, and we’re sort of getting our feet underneath us at this point,” Brown said.

Original Author: Margaret Yoder