Treasure trove of restricted social science data now available to Pacific Northwest researchers



By Molly McElroy UW News and Information Mark Ellis, a geography professor at the University of Washington, uses non-public data collected by the government to study immigration and unemployment patterns. But since the data are confidential and access to them is restricted, Ellis can’t just have the records sent to him or access them from his UW computer. Instead, he has had to travel to a Research Data Center maintained by the U.S. Census Bureau and use its secure Internet connection to obtain data kept on census servers in Bowie, Md. At one point in his career, Ellis traveled every other week to UCLA – one of the closest census centers to UW. He had a young child and other responsibilities and those trips to California became “enormously stressful.” Ellis led the effort to create a census research center in Washington state. With funding from UW, the state and the National Science Foundation, the Northwest Census Research Data Center officially opened Sept. 24 with Ellis as its director. “The UW is poised to be a world leader in developing tools for integrating, analyzing and understanding data sets that are high-dimensional, dynamic and large in scale,” UW Provost Ana Mari Cauce said at the center’s grand opening. The local center will help UW reach this goal by providing “a vital resource for our students and faculty in the social, behavioral and health sciences, allowing them to do cutting edge research on campus that was previously impossible without costly travel elsewhere,” she said. The new center at UW is one of 15 such census outposts across the U.S. It provides qualified researchers access to restricted data from demographic, economic, public health and household surveys collected by the Census Bureau and other federal agencies, including the National Center for Health Statistics and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The records go back to the 1980s, sometimes earlier. Ellis anticipates that researchers using the center will pursue topics such as the effects of highway tolls on low-income individuals, how neighborhood environments affect health, and improving population estimates in King County to better allocate funding for schools, public transportation and fire and police services. Economic data provided at the center can help answer questions on the characteristics that help new businesses thrive and the links between entrepreneurialism and job creation. Researchers must submit a research proposal and obtain a medium-level security clearance to use the Northwest Census Research Data Center. The process involves:

  • Discussing the research idea with Ellis and Mike Babb, UW Geography grad student and administrator of the Northwest Census Research Data Center, to ensure the topic is feasible.
  • Preparing a proposal detailing the research question, how it will benefit the census, and which datasets are requested
  • Submitting the proposal to the Census Bureau for review by federal agencies and other researchers. Submissions can be made at any time.

Proposals are seldom rejected, but reviewers usually ask researchers to revise their proposals and resubmit them. It takes about four months to hear whether the proposal has been approved, and census officials are trying to decrease that time to about 60 days. The center – located in George Russell Jr. Hall in the University District – can accommodate 16 users at a time and most of the data is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Fees apply for some users. Funding for the center came from UW’s College of Arts and Sciences, Office of the Provost and School of Social Work, with additional funds from the National Science Foundation and the Washington State Office of Financial Management. ### For more information, contact Ellis at 206-616-6207 or or Babb at 206-543-1528 or Watch videos from the Northwest Census Research Data Center’s grand opening, including introductory remarks by UW and census officials, instructions for accessing the center, and a research talk by Melissa Martinson of the School of Social Work describing how she used restricted data to study health of U.S. immigrants. Overview of demographic , public health, household, and economic data available from the Center