November 7, 2018

Restricted Federal Data holds value for Rural Research

Headshot of Dr. Benjamin Cerf.

Photo from Dr. Cerf’s profile on

On October 17, Dr. Benjamin Cerf, a Census Bureau research economist and the administrator of the Northwest Federal Statistical Research Data Center at the University of Washington in Seattle, presented information on accessing restricted federal data to University of Montana researchers. Thirty-six UM researchers and staff attended the two sessions, which were part of the University of Montana Faculty Professional Development Series hosted by the Faculty Development Office.

Following an invitation from Dr. Christiane von Reichert, a professor of Geography at UM, Dr. Cerf gave presentations on restricted business, demographic, and health data that can only be viewed at Federal Statistical Research Data Centers (RDCs) located in 29 locations throughout the country. Dr. von Reichert is an RTC:Rural research partner who is working with Dr. Cerf on a proposal to access restricted census data so she can further her research on disability at the household level.

While some census information is available to researchers through publically accessible information sets (such as the American Community Survey), the data available at the RDCs is more comprehensive and often exclusive. This can be useful for various avenues of disability research.

Dr. Catherine Ipsen, RTC:Rural Director, thinks the restricted data could be used to make valuable connections to link research and policy. “I am particularly interested in self-employment as an option for people with disabilities living in rural communities. By linking the Survey of Business Owners with Census household data, I could describe rural entrepreneurs with disabilities – the types of business they own, the revenue they earn, and their business survival rates,” she said. “These data could inform workforce development systems, such as Vocational Rehabilitation, who pursue self-employment at low rates.”

Dr. Rayna Sage, RTC:Rural Project Director, shared piqued interest in what the restricted data could communicate for additional lines of research. “After attending both the workshops by Dr. Cerf, I was struck by the possibility of looking at how environmental justice factors, such as distance from a polluting industrial facility or distance from a grocery store with fresh foods, intersect with disability and health,” said Dr. Rayna Sage, RTC:Rural Project Director.

Map of the United States with dots indicating the locations of the 29 Federal Statistical Research Data Centers.

Locations of Federal Statistical Research Data Centers. Map from

Federal Statistical Research Data Centers (RDCs) are secure facilities that are partnerships between federal statistical agencies and research institutions. Researchers at different RDCs can access and collaborate on the same data files via a secure intranet connection.

Available data includes information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau, and National Center for Health Statistics.  Researchers can also access information from the National Crime Victimization Survey, Social Security Administration’s Numident file, data sets from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and many others.

The information available from the RDCs supplements and often exceeds publicly available data, which can be especially important in rural areas. Researchers wanting to access the FSRDCs have to go through a procedure that can take 6-12 months and involves a complex process that includes paying data-extract fees to relevant agencies, passing background checks, and fulfilling a commitment to not just access data for research and academic needs, but also to provide service and support to the Census Bureau through the proposed work. “Scientific merit is not enough,” Dr. Cerf said. Though staff at the Census Bureau are available to help researchers craft competitive proposals, not all proposals are accepted.

“Anything new at the RDC exists because someone was told they can’t or shouldn’t do something,” said Dr. Cerf. “It was hard to get the RDCs to exist, but visionary people got the people in charge to change their minds.”

All the data available, and connections between databases, was hard won by people working in the facilities—including outside researchers. As more data sets are interlinked among RDCs, the research capabilities of the sites expand, which may hold particular value for rural researchers.

Thank you to the U.S. Census Bureau and Dr. Benjamin Cerf, the University of Montana Faculty Development Office and Amy Finch, and RTC: Rural and Dr. Christiane von Reichert for this presentation series.

For more information about Federal Statistical Research Data Centers, see: