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Expanding Access to Research Data: Reconciling Risks and Opportunities
assess competing approaches to promoting exploitation of the research potential of microdata—particularly linked longitudinal microdata—while preserving respondent confidentiality.” The panel was asked to consider the tradeoffs between the benefits and risks of data access and to make recommendations about “how microdata should optimally (from a societal standpoint) be made available to researchers.”
The panel concludes that no one way is optimal for all data users or all purposes. To meet society’s needs for high-quality research and statistics, the nation’s statistical and research agencies must provide both unrestricted access to anonymized public-use files and restricted access to detailed, individually identifiable confidential data for researchers under carefully specified conditions.
Research using detailed confidential data is needed not only for well-informed policy making but also to improve the quality of public-use files, which are the most widely used microdata products made available by statistical and other data collection agencies. In turn, wide access to public-use data leads to new analyses and conclusions that must be tested on the more detailed confidential data available only through restricted access.
High-quality public-use files require continuing research into methods of assuring the inferential validity of the data while safeguarding their confidentiality. A great deal of promising work has been done on this topic, but more is clearly needed.
At the same time, the continuing need for restricted access to more detailed microdata means that the conditions for obtaining such access need improvement on a continuing basis. The use of licensing agreements, as a mechanism for granting wider access to confidential microdata, should be expanded. Especially important is easier access to research data centers, such as those maintained at universities and other host institutions by the U.S. Census Bureau. Such centers, which several other agencies maintain at their headquarters, are currently the only place where researchers have access to key microdata that provide the level of detail (e.g., small geographic areas) needed for many important analyses. Research to facilitate secure remote access to these data centers is also needed in order to remove the burden on researchers of traveling to a distant site.
We believe that the changes we recommend will result in wider access to high-quality anonymized public-use files as well as to potentially identifiable microdata. But such expanded access requires expanded procedural and legal protections. The panel believes that users, like agencies, should be held accountable for safeguarding the confidentiality of microdata files to which they are granted access. We recommend that statistical agencies set up procedures for monitoring any breaches of confidentiality that may occur, as well as their causes and consequences. We recommend