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Confidential Federal data under academic scrutiny in new data centre initiative

Tue 10 Mar 2015

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln will lead a consortium of five universities in the opening of a new data centre which will give academics access to confidential federal information. UNL’s Central Plains Research Data Center (CPRD) will form part of a resource nexus along with 18 other data centres in the U.S. which are connected to the servers of the U.S. Census Bureau in Maryland, VA.

“We’re joining an elite group of universities,” said CPRD executive director Prof. John Anderson, “From a research point of view, these centers are veritable gold mines,”

The UNL faculty has a tableau of projects lined up for access to the sensitive information of the Census Bureau. Among the subjects it is hoping to study are the movement of individuals up and down income distribution over time, disparities in health in minority groups (in order to formulate potential improvements in treatment programs and gain information on disease incidence), cross-referencing with existing data from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s existing National Drought Mitigation Center, and the study of food distribution.

UNL will be the new initiative’s central location, with a subsidiary branch at Iowa State University. Other universities involved in the consortium include the University of South Dakota and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

The release vaunts the new data centre as a ‘cornerstone’ for the newly established Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Initiative at UNL, but notes that ‘individual-level information is essential for exploring issues in greater detail.’ It continues, ‘This sensitive individual information is restricted, available only to researchers with access to a secure research data center,’

The $300,000 grant provided by the National Science Foundation will be led by chief investigator and psychologist Robert Belli, who is also the director of the Survey Research and Methodology Program and Gallup Research Center at UNL. UNL Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Prem Paul says that UNL will contribute to the data centre’s estimated annual running costs of $400,000.

Anderson, a UNL economics professor, claims that the new research data centre (RDC) will occupy a geographic gap in the network of the Census Bureau, stating: “Previously, there were no RDCs between Chicago and Texas and Southern California. […] We made the pitch in our NSF proposal that the central part of the country needed an RDC to give researchers here access,”

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