New federal center gives Penn researchers access to exclusive, high-quality government data

A significant amount of confidential data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other governmental entities will soon become available for free to Penn researchers who qualify because of the University’s part in establishing a new Federal Statistical Research Data Center (FSRDC) in Philadelphia.

The center itself—a partnership with Penn State University, Drexel University, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia—is a secure lab that will live in the Bank’s already protected facility at Ten Independence Mall. But access to the information means much more, says Iourii Manovskii, an associate professor of economics in the School of Arts & Sciences (SAS), who is leading Penn’s part of the project.

“From the viewpoint of Penn, this investment will pay back in many ways,” he says.

The datasets, among the largest and highest quality collected by the U.S. government, enable unique empirical research and more meaningful study and analysis. Access to them will facilitate better funding opportunities from organizations such as the National Science Foundation, and make the University more attractive for high-caliber faculty and graduate students, in particular giving the latter a competitive job market edge.

“It’s a massive amount of data on individuals and businesses, which is all linkable across datasets,” Manovskii says. “That means you can do things that were never possible before.”

Previously, for example, the Census Bureau collected vast individual-level data, but made public only some aggregate statistics or suppressed the micro-level data released to researchers. The FSRDC, however, will enable Penn researchers to dig deeper, with access to the full trove of original micro data.

University-wide interest in the information is clear from the researchers across diverse fields who worked to bring the center here: Dirk Krueger of the Department of Economics; Daniel Polsky of the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics; Kent Smetters of the Wharton Public Policy Initiative; and Irma Elo of Population Studies, as well as the support from SAS and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.

The data breaks down into four categories: demographics, economics, health, and matched employer-employee data used to study job-level earning histories. Because of the new FSRDC’s sensitive nature, those interested in using it must get project approval from an administrator at the center and the Census Bureau to use very specific data sets related to their project, then pass a background check and a screening, as well as swear an oath to uphold all privacy of any user data they see before they can begin their research—which they must conduct entirely within the lab’s walls. Researchers must submit their final data to the Census Bureau before publishing to ensure any personal information is omitted.

Manovskii says that for new users, full approval could take, at a minimum, five to six months. The Philadelphia center won’t open until April 2017, but due to the lengthy process, he recommends researchers start contemplating projects now. To that end, he’s hosting a workshop for potential users on Friday, Dec. 2, with the director and administrator of another FSRDC that is already operational.

“In the scheme of things, it’s a big deal for us,” Manovskii says. “Until now, such detailed and high-quality U.S. data was impossible to get. Now, researchers can use it. Researchers at Penn can use it. And for me, that makes an enormous difference.”

Federal Statistics Center