FSD Bulletin

Issue 26 (1/2009)
8.5.2009

ISSN 1795-5262

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FSD Bulletin is the electronic newsletter of the Finnish Social Science Data Archive. The Bulletin provides information and news related to the data archive and social science research.


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Finnish Social Science Data Archive
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Workshop of Eurostat and CESSDA PPP Sought Ways to Improve Availability of Microdata Collected for Statistical Purposes

Helena Laaksonen

The requirements to facilitate the research use of micro-level datasets maintained by statistical authorities have become stronger. In some countries, access to the statistical authorities' microdata has already been organised in an exemplary fashion. The solutions are different but working. In several European countries, researchers are still facing problems. Research use is usually restricted by data protection regulations and lack of money.

The representatives of European statistics centres, researcher community, and data archives held a common workshop in Luxembourg last December. Discussions in the workshop probed topics such as various practices in different countries, and what could and should be done in order to increase the availability of valuable datasets for research use.

Various regulations related to the European Statistical System (ESS) were presented at the workshop, especially from the viewpoint of data protection, confidentiality and research use. For statistical authorities, the first priority is to maintain confidentiality. They want to avoid risks, and handing over micro-level data might pose a risk even if direct identifiers have been removed. Researchers, on the other hand, are even offended by the assumption according to which they will strive to identify research participants or handle the data carelessly, as one researcher stated in his comment.

European Union Legislation Enables

The recommendation of the Commission on the independence, integrity and accountability of the national and Community statistical authorities (COM(2005) 217) includes an important passage for researchers: "Access to microdata can be allowed for research purposes. This access is subject to strict protocols." The wording of the passage does not oblige, it enables. It is clear that Eurostat has improved the availability and re-use of micro-level data.

It is stipulated in the Commission's regulation that a few datasets may be used in the facilities of the Community authority (mainly Eurostat) even if they contain confidential information. Seven datasets are mentioned in the regulation, the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and the European Community Household Panel (ECHP) among others.

Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands are usually viewed as good examples regarding the use of microdata. In these countries, it is possible to access micro-level datasets remotely. There are plans to introduce remote access in Finland as well. In addition to the European Union legislation, the member countries have differences in their national regulations and in the ways they interpret the laws. For instance, the Swedish remote access system MONA contains different mechanisms which are aimed at preventing the indirect identification of research participants. However, indirect identifiers are not a problem according to Claus-Göran Hjelm who presented the system. He says that the responsibility for data protection is in Sweden transferred from statistical authorities to end users. In Finland, this would not be possible. The responsibility for data remains ultimately in the hands of Statistics Finland.

Data Archives as Microdata Distributors

Paul Jackson, a representative of the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS), says that statistical authorities need to move on "from avoiding risks to managing risks". According to his experiences, the distribution of data to research community is a task that a data archive can well be trusted with. In the UK, anonymised microdata collected for statistical purposes are distributed for research purposes through the ESDS service, which is specialised in economic and social data. The Norwegian Social Science Data Services (NSD) has also a strong status in storing and distributing data originally collected for statistical purposes.

Easy availability increases the re-use of data for research purposes and teaching. The numbers of access applications received by Eurostat and ESDS were subjected to critical comparison in the researcher's address of the seminar. It was assessed that Eurostat has plenty to do in promoting the research use of micro-level datasets.

The Eurostat Workshop was held on December 3rd and 4th and attracted over 80 participants from the statistics offices, data archives and universities of the European Union member countries. In addition, there were representatives of partner organisations from non-EU countries and international organisations. The atmosphere of the workshop was very co-operative. After all, the member countries and their national legislation and interpretation of the law determine the extent of co-operation.

Additional information:

» Seminar materials on the web
» Recommendation of the Commission on the independence, integrity and accountability of the national and Community statistical authorities (COM(2005) 217) (pdf file)
» Commission Regulation (EC) No 1000/2007 of 29 August 2007 amending Regulation (EC) No 831/2002 implementing Council Regulation (EC) No 322/97 on Community Statistics, concerning access to confidential data for scientific purposes (pdf file)
» CESSDA PPP - Preparatory Phase Project for a Major Upgrade of the Council of European Social Science Data Archives (CESSDA) Research Infrastructure
» Microdata (Eurostat)