MU Approved to Open New Census Bureau Research Data Center

Satellite center will make population, economic and health research more efficient for scientists


ResearcherColleen Heflin is an associate professor in the MU Truman School of Public Affairs and co-director of the Research Data Center satellite location at MU.

Colleen Heflin is an associate professor in the MU Truman School of Public Affairs and co-director of the Research Data Center satellite location at MU.
Download photo from the MU News Bureau

Story posted: Oct. 07, 2014

By: Nathan Hurst

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The University of Missouri has received approval from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to become a satellite location for the new Research Data Center (RDC) to be located in Kansas City, Mo. Now, researchers from MU and around the Midwest will be able to access millions of files of census bureau data for research projects ranging from public health issues to economics. Hank Foley, senior vice chancellor for research and graduate studies at MU, says this new center will further position MU as a leading research institution in the region.

“Having access to the federal government’s immense database on our campus will allow MU researchers, as well as scientists from around the region, to perform important, complicated research that they otherwise would have to travel hundreds of miles and spend thousands of dollars to complete,” Foley said. “This new research center will be a priceless resource for advancing scientific study here at Mizzou and around the Midwest.”

Although best known for the nationwide census every 10 years, the U.S. Bureau of the Census collects millions of records of information on individuals and businesses based on a large number of specialized surveys, as well as providing access to data maintained by a variety of government agencies.  Although much of these data are made public, a large portion contain sensitive information, such as Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and medical records, which remains confidential to protect the privacy of individual Americans. In order to access this sensitive data for sociological, economic and public health research, scientists are required to receive certification from the census bureau and travel to an RDC, where they are closely monitored by government officials to ensure that the data remain confidential. Previously, Mizzou researchers were forced to travel as far as Chicago or Minnesota to reach the closest RDC. Colleen Heflin, an associate professor in the MU Truman School of Public Affairs and co-director of the satellite RDC at MU, says the new center will allow MU researchers to work much more efficiently.

“Spending time travelling hundreds of miles to gain access to this invaluable database can be quite expensive and time consuming,” Heflin said. “With this resource on campus, MU scientists can perform their research much more cheaply and quickly than they could formerly.”

“Having an RDC branch on campus will allow MU researchers to take on projects that would not be possible otherwise, opening up opportunities for important scholarly work as well as government and private grant funding,” said Peter Mueser, a professor in the Department of Economics in the MU College of Arts and Science and co-director of the MU RDC. “For example, RCD census data have detailed information on geography that was used in a recent study on the effect of hurricane Katrina on businesses in Mississippi.  Such RDC access is available at fewer than 20 sites nationwide, so MU will join a small elite group who have this kind of access.”

The University of Missouri has dedicated $1 million from the general operating budget: to finance the new facility, which will be located in Ellis Library on the MU campus; fund the salary of a census bureau employee to operate the RDC; create small grants for faculty to receive federal approval to use the RDC; fund several doctoral fellowships to train students in using the database; and begin a seminar series promoting the types of research in which the RDC is capable of assisting. The primary RDC, located in Kansas City, is funded by the Kauffman Foundation. While the MU RDC is technically a satellite center, it will allow the same access to census bureau data as the primary RDC in Kansas City. Chris Wikle, a professor of statistics at MU, says the new RDC will be a valuable resource for all kinds of research.

“The types of data available in an RDC allow us to more easily develop and check the techniques we are working on to improve research in specific areas that are important to scientists who are trying to do work in the social and political sciences,” Wikle said. “An example would be if social scientists were interested in comparing demographic data to the amount of crime in a particular neighborhood. The demographic data from a specific neighborhood might not normally be available to the public, but can be accessed through the methods we are developing with resources from the RDC.”

The date in which the MU RDC will be opened has not yet been named, but Heflin believes it should be operational within the next year.

MU News Bureau: