There was a ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday at Georgetown. That, in itself, is not rare for a growing, dynamic university. This one, however, has the distinction that it recognized the launch of a new resource for Georgetown faculty and student scholarship.
The new resource lies within the Massive Data Institute of the McCourt School of Public Policy. It’s called a Federal Statistical Research Data Center (these are often called RDC’s). This post gives an idea of what the RDC is and what it means for Georgetown.
Much of the social and economic information disseminated by the US federal government is collected by a group of 13 “principal statistical agencies.” The information includes the basic indicators of extent of employment and unemployment, productivity of US industries, creation and growth of new businesses, self-reported criminal victimization, extent of literacy and educational achievement, status of agriculture enterprises, and volume of transportation use across modes. The principal statistical agencies include the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the National Center for Health Statistics, among others.
The information created from the data is used to monitor the status of the economy and the general welfare of the society. The information forms a key component of the way that we are informed about how government policies are affecting society. In that sense, the information is a cornerstone of our democracy, the very source of an informed citizenry.
Over the years, scientific uses of the same data sets have extracted even more information of value than exists through the traditional government statistical indicators (e.g., the unemployment rate, the poverty rate, the home ownership rate, the proportion of adults with a college education). Academic social scientists have performed much more detailed analyses, using more sophisticated statistical techniques, to address questions of what might be causing differential welfare across key population groups; or how experiences early in life might affect statuses later in life; or what the precursors are regarding the success or failure of new businesses.
Since the data were collected under pledges of confidentiality to the respondents, the micro-data files are kept confidential within the statistical agencies that proffered the pledge. Hence, despite the richness of the data, too few academic scholars have studied them.
Over the past few years, employing privacy protecting technologies and rigorous scrutiny, a select number of non-government organizations have been authorized to locate high-security research data centers on their own site. The Georgetown Federal Statistical Research Data Center is one of these, the 24th in the nation.
What can happen at Georgetown that couldn’t happen without it? Approved research projects (ones whose outcome can help fulfill the common good missions of the statistical agencies) can access the micro-data files from the Center itself (located on the ground floor of the Healy building). Analyses using these data resources can answer questions that cannot be answered in any other way. Georgetown researchers, within a few steps of their offices, can do cutting-edge social scientific work, once their projects are approved by the statistical agency involved.
Access to the RDC is secured by electronic entry controls. Within the Center, there are no data stored, but the devices within the Center can access the files located in a data center supporting the RDC’s. Inside, there is a Census Bureau employee to assist the research activity and to ensure that all of the privacy protections are operating properly.
We have a set of Georgetown faculty already engaged in such work, and the RDC is now open for business for other research projects to be proposed. We are quite fortunate in having Professor Brad Jensen of the McDonough School of Business as the executive director of the RDC. Brad has deep experience in the RDC network and will be a great advisor for novice users of the facility. After that advice, formal proposals for projects are submitted, reviewed, and if approved, the work can begin on the Hilltop.
While located within the McCourt School of Public Policy, the RDC is a facility for all of Georgetown. It’s great to see it here!