NSF awards $3 million to triangle scientists to improve federal data

July 22, 2011

DURHAM, N.C. -- A team of statisticians, economists and political scientists from Duke University and the National Institute of Statistical Sciences has received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Census Bureau to improve how federal statistical agencies share government data with the public.

U.S. Census Bureau data is protected under confidentiality laws and cannot be released without being modified to maintain individuals' and businesses' privacy. The Triangle Census Research Network will develop statistical methods for making more of the bureau's data available to researchers, policy makers and the public, while preserving anonymity.

The team will also use new statistical methods to improve the quality of the data and link it to related sources of information. The grant for the Triangle Census Research Network begins October 1, 2011 and continues until 2016.

Jerry Reiter, an associate professor of statistics at Duke University, said that the Census Bureau and other federal statistical agencies want to make their data available to the public because the information can lead to a deeper understanding of economic and social issues and more-informed policy-making.

Reiter, who led the effort to obtain the NSF funding for the new network, recently worked with researchers from the Census Bureau to develop statistical methods to create a synthetic data set for the Longitudinal Business Database, an annual economic census of establishments in the United States comprising more than 20 million records dating back to 1976.

The synthetic data mimics the trends and information contained in the original information, but protects the privacy of the businesses covered in the data set, Reiter said. It is the first time a U.S. federal agency has released a public-use, establishment-level dataset on businesses.

With support from the NSF, the developing Triangle Census Research Network can now help the government release other important federal information, such as the Annual Survey of Manufacturers (ASM), that many researchers have not previously had access to.

"We're awash in data," said Duke economist V. Joseph Hotz, who is also a part of the new research network. "The Census Bureau gathers data, as do the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other federal agencies, and they're collecting really important numbers, from the price of gasoline and durable goods that are used to measure the consumer price index, to data on the demographic composition of households that are used to understand how the American family is changing over time."

In each of these cases, the bureau faces continuing challenges to ensure these data are accurate, especially when citizens choose not to participate in census surveys or provide inaccurate information. One of the goals of the network will be to help the Census Bureau correlate different sources of information to fill holes or correct inaccuracies in old data sets.

Combining data from the U.S. Census, Medicare and death certificates, for example, would improve estimates of mortality, while linking payroll tax records and Census data will help improve estimates of the wage and salary earnings of U.S. workers. Policymakers use the wage and earnings data to monitor the health of the U.S. economy.

Hotz said that the grant also will help to legitimize research on confidentiality issues, combining data sets, and information dissemination and will help demonstrate to students "that these fields are worth going into." He, Reiter and the other network scientists plan to begin training new researchers as soon as the funding period begins.

Duke University

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