posted on Dec. 20: McMaster forges unique research link with Statistics Canada


[img_inline align=”right” src=””]When Professor Byron Spencer pushed in his security key card to unlock the Research Data Centre at its official opening yesterday, he opened the door to a new era in social science research at McMaster.

The University is now home to the first of nine Research Data Centres in the country.

The centre, located in Mills Memorial Library, was built in collaboration with Statistics Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Its purpose is to provide a wealth of detailed data to social science researchers, who previously would have had to travel to Ottawa to work with similar Statistics Canada resources.

“While there will be eight others to be opened under the same premise, McMaster's is the first to be fully functional,” said Alan Harrison, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. “The establishment of this research data centre and the others to follow is an important step in finding ways to make Statistics Canada data available to the research community.”

What makes the centre unique is the detail of the data now available for analysis.

Information such as names, addresses and telephone numbers will continue to be stripped from the data files researchers will use.

But the master data files will give pertinent details, such as age and location, which will enable researchers to conduct essential social research. The topics examined could include retirement, why children move into or out of low-income living situations or the impact of stress and physical activity on health.

Until now, researchers on campus have had access only to Statistics Canada's public use files that camouflage the characteristics of individuals.

“The initiative is important to allow people to have access to the master data files to do useful work,” said Spencer, a professor of economics and director of the Research Institute for Quantitative Studies in Economics and Population. Spencer is director of the national pilot project to bring the centre to McMaster.

“If you need to know very much about the individual, such as their age or where they live, you have to get to the master data file. It's the detail that is important. It allows researchers to follow people through time and watch how behaviours change.”

The centre will operate as an extension of Statistics Canada offices, with a full-time Statistics Canada employee on site. Due to its status as an official site, the centre is subject to the same security provisions required by other Statistics Canada offices.

University researchers will conduct work under the terms of the Statistics Canada Act and are required to swear a legally binding oath to keep all identifiable information confidential. As well, the centre itself is protected by a secure access system and all data is stored on a server independent from external networks.

“It's basically a concrete vault for security purposes,” said Mike Sheridan, assistant chief statistician, social, institutions and labour statistics with Statistics Canada, “so it's ostensibly physically impossible to gain access without an authorized pass.”

Statistics Canada spends about $60 million a year collecting relevant statistics from Canadians. Sheridan said Canadians co-operate with Statistics Canada surveys because they expect the data will be analyzed to provide a portrait of how the country and Canadians are evolving.

Above(left to right): Byron Spencer(centre director), Cindy Cook(Statistics Canada research data analyst), Mike Sheridan(assistant chief statistican for Social, Institutions and Labour Statistics)Photo: Ron Scheffler