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Wednesday December 7th

New research center opens at UNC, allows access to restricted census data

A new Federal Statistical Research Data Center has opened in the Carolina Population Center located at 123 W Franklin Street.
Buy Photos A new Federal Statistical Research Data Center has opened in the Carolina Population Center located at 123 W Franklin Street.

The new Triangle Federal Statistical Research Data Center — a hub allowing researchers to access nonpublic census data — has opened inside of the Carolina Population Center.

The center is part of the Triangle Research Data Center, a partnership between the U.S. Census Bureau, Duke University, UNC and the research institution RTI International. Within the group, there are two branches — one at UNC and one at the Social Science Research Institute at Duke University. Researchers can choose to use whichever branch is more convenient for them. 

The Chapel Hill branch is the first to open up within the UNC System and one of roughly 30 centers nationwide. Researchers at Duke, RTI and within the UNC System will be able to use the center for free. 

The new research center allows researchers to access nonpublic data from the U.S. Census that normally would be restricted by the government in order to protect people’s privacy, Karen Guzzo, director of the Carolina Population Center, said. 

“The way that I describe it to people is kind of like an iceberg,” Melody Kramer, director of communications and business development for the Carolina Population Center, said. 

The tip of the iceberg above the ocean, Kramer said, is the public access data that anyone can download from the U.S. Census Bureau website. Below the ocean is the restricted data that is available to researchers in one of the federal data centers.

Researchers in the new branch will have access to microdata, which is information from the U.S. Census that focuses on small populations, such as neighborhoods. This will help researchers answer detailed interdisciplinary questions, Guzzo said.

“Microdata is really just about drilling down to as small of a geographic unit as possible and still having the data still be sort of useful and helpful and accurate,” Guzzo said. 

It typically takes about six months to have new research project ideas approved, making the center more ideal for professionals or graduate students who will spend two or three years researching a certain topic, Ted Mouw, co-director of the Triangle RDC, said.

Interested individuals may also join a team that has already been approved to research a certain topic — a much faster approval process that is more ideal for undergraduates, Mouw said.

Mouw said project proposals and approvals will be sent first to a census employee who works at the Chapel Hill and Durham locations and then to the U.S. Census Bureau for final approval. 

Mouw said he recommends that undergraduate students who are interested use the publicly available data to practice their research skills before applying to join a team-based research project as a research assistant. 

“There are definitely lots of ways for undergrads who have acquired the skills to get involved in research projects,” Mouw said.

Guzzo said the Chapel Hill branch is funded by a one-time startup fund from the National Science Foundation and additional “seat fees” some researchers pay. While the branch is maintained by continued support, members of the Triangle research group can use the center for free.  

Mouw said much of the credit for funding can be attributed to Elizabeth Frankenberg, former director of the CPC. Frankenberg negotiated with the University for about three years to secure the one-time funding to open the center, he said.

The Chapel Hill center replaced another Federal Research Data Center that was located at RTI’s headquarters in the Research Triangle Park area that closed a few years ago, Mouw said.  

Since the census bureau considers this a move of an existing branch, Mouw said the Chapel Hill branch was able to proceed faster and avoid an approval process that can take multiple years.

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