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New Federal Data Center Will Expand Research Opportunities Across St. Louis Region

The new Federal Statistical Research Data Center in St. Louis will be housed at Washington University. It's supported by WashU, St. Louis University, The University of Missouri - St. Louis and the St. Louis Federal Reserve.
Washington University / Flickr
The new Federal Statistical Research Data Center in St. Louis will be housed at Washington University. It's supported by Wash U, St. Louis University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

The U.S. Census Bureau plans to open a new Federal Statistical Research Data Center in St. Louis as soon as the 2022-23 academic year.

The data center will provide researchers throughout the St. Louis region with more access to granular information the government collects about economics, demography, health care, urban development and other fields.

“This is data that has much more detail than what’s publicly available,” said Harriett Green, associate university librarian at Washington University, “including information that has to be confidential otherwise by law.”

The new center is supported by Washington University, St. Louis University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the St. Louis Federal Reserve and will be housed at Wash U’s Danforth Campus.

Green said it will provide academics a secure space to access restricted information about individuals from many government agencies, including the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Center for Health Statistics.

This level of access is what makes the data center attractive to many researchers in the St. Louis region, including Ness Sandoval, who studies demography and sociology at St. Louis University.

“That’s the kind of data that you want to work with if you’re trying to move a body of literature forward without making generalizations that may be wrong using macrodata,” he said. “I’m excited. I think this is a win for the region.”

In his research, Sandoval uses data sets from the census and other sources, to map and explore the relationship among quality of life, social inequality and justice in the St. Louis region.

Sandoval said local access to a Federal Statistical Research Data Center means he can develop more sophisticated models in his own research than he otherwise would with publicly available data that is often aggregated.

“In my field, the most that you can say is, ‘There’s an association between factor X and factor Y,’” he said. “When you get into microdata, you have some ability to say, ‘It’s more than just an association, there appears to be cause and effect.’”

The level of data at one of these centers also lets researchers find more nuanced answers to their questions and explore new lines of investigation, said Lee Slocum, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“It allows you to rule out alternate explanations by controlling for factors that could also be at play,” she said.

Slocum said she is interested in exploring the factors that can limit whether an individual reports a crime to the police, among other ideas. She added that this new location in St. Louis will open possibilities for local researchers who may not have the resources to access a federal data center in another city.

“In the past I wanted to use these data and when I wanted to use them, it required an expensive outlay of money and required me to travel long distances and it just wasn’t feasible,” Slocum said.

The bureau currently has 30 federal data centers spread across the country, including in Kansas City and Columbia.

A new location in St. Louis gives the region more ability to attract skilled investigators, said Adrienne Brennecke, librarian in the St. Louis Federal Reserve Research Division Library.

“Having the data available here is a great way to draw talented researchers to our institutions,” she said. “Research in top-rated social science journals increasingly relies on this type of confidential data.”

It’s also a marker of the research and innovations happening at the many educational institutions in the region, Green said.

“We are an educational powerhouse as much as some of the better-known regions like Boston, Chicago or San Francisco,” she said. “This really puts us on the map.”

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.