Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Census data center: 'A nerd's trip to Nirvana'

By Kimber Williams, Emory Report

Erik Nesson, an Emory doctoral candidate in health economics, was seeking detailed data for his dissertation into how both heavy and light smokers respond to tobacco control policies.

Turns out, his timing couldn't have been better.

The Atlanta Census Research Data Center (ACRDC) opened last fall within a secure computer room at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta to provide restricted data for social, economic and health research.

Now, Nesson joins the first wave of Emory researchers to be granted a rare opportunity — the chance to study a virtual smorgasbord of government microdata not readily available to the general public.

From economic, business, trade and labor data to household and crime surveys, health statistics and manufacturing reports, the available material "goes far beyond what you would immediately associate with census data," says Nesson, who describes working at the center as "a nerd's trip to Nirvana."

Sifting through national health data, Nesson found that light smokers weren't really changing their behaviors, but heavy smokers were — reducing the number of cigarettes they smoked, but also inhaling more intensely and switching brands, so the level of nicotine in their systems never really changed.

Access to restricted data, he says, made all the difference.

"It's a huge competitive advantage," Nesson explains. "It's hard enough to think of ideas for dissertations, things no one has done before or ways to improve on what people have done before. The ridiculous amount of data they have [at the ACRDC] will be a great recruiting tool for people interested in really any field."

Research trips to the next closest centers — in North Carolina or Maryland — would cost both time away from the classroom and travel funds, says David Frisvold, assistant professor of economics at Emory, who is working with the ACRDC for research into soft drink taxes and childhood obesity.

Although the data Frisvold needs are available elsewhere, he has had to pay steep fees to access what he can now examine at the ACRDC at no cost. "It makes a big difference," he says.

Data at the center are restricted primarily due to privacy concerns. Researchers must submit to a rigorous background check, receive data security training, and submit a formal application to win approval for their projects in order to work in the highly secure computer lab.

When the ACRDC opened, Frisvold was already studying how sales taxes on soft drinks —a strategy to reduce childhood obesity and raise revenue for budget-strapped states — affect childhood obesity. He not only needed regional tax information, but a complete portrait of consumers: where people lived, their height, weight and soft drink consumption patterns.

With access to restricted data, "we have a very precise estimate on the impact of soft drink taxes on body mass index," says Frisvold, whose project also involves colleagues at Yale University and Bates College.

Read the whole article at Emory Report.

Photo credit: iStockphoto.com.


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