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Kansas City will gain direct access to a confidential trove of census data

The Kansas City Star

Economist Jon Willis’ 14-year wait is coming to an end. Kansas City is getting direct access to a confidential data trove at the U.S. Census Bureau.

A Census Bureau research data center will open next fall at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, where Willis works. A Kansas City group led by the regional Fed was one of six markets granted a center through a competitive application process.

The site will offer restricted access to confidential data maintained in Washington. It’s information that economists, academics and others consider critical to economic and policy decisions and debates.

Willis last used such a site in Boston when he was a graduate student. He has wanted access since joining the Kansas City Fed 14 years ago.

“It’s like a secret data room. It’s a locked data room,” Willis said. “It’s a room with no windows. It’s not very exciting. There’s a bunch of computers. But it’s got amazing data to use.”

Willis studies the labor market, a focal point in the nation’s current economic policy debates. For example, there is a sense that the falling unemployment rate doesn’t fully represent the situation in the job market.

He wants to tap the center’s access to data similar to individuals’ W-2 records that identify the companies where they work. It will help him understand how people move between jobs and how they move in and out of the labor force.

“The questions that we’re struggling to answer, to some extent, the data is there,” Willis said.

Other information at these sites includes financial details about individual companies.

Names are missing, Willis said, but there is enough that a determined individual could figure things out.

The U.S. Census Bureau protects individuals and companies by screening researchers and by requiring them to demonstrate that any information they take out of the locked room is aggregated results rather than specifics on people and businesses.

There are 18 research data centers currently, including the U.S. census headquarters in Washington. In Kansas City, however, the nearest access is in Chicago or Minneapolis.

The Kansas City center is set to open next year at the Kansas City Fed. Other institutions involved in the application also will have access. They are the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the University of Kansas, the University of Kansas Medical Center, the University of Missouri and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

To reach Mark Davis, call 816-234-4372 or send email to mdavis@kcstar.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at mdkcstar.

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