Federal government statistics provide critical information to the country and serve a key role in a democracy. For decades, sample surveys with instruments carefully designed for particular data needs have been one of the primary methods for collecting data for federal statistics. However, the costs of conducting such surveys have been increasing while response rates have been declining, and many surveys are not able to fulfill growing demands for more timely information and for more detailed information at state and local levels.
The Panel on Improving Federal Statistics for Policy and Social Science Research Using Multiple Data Sources and State-of-the-Art Estimation Methods was charged to conduct a study to foster a paradigm shift in federal statistical programs that would use combinations of diverse data sources from government and private-sector sources in place of a single census, survey, or administrative records source. This first report discusses the challenges faced by the federal statistical system and the foundational elements needed for a new paradigm.
In addition to surveys, some federal statistics are also derived from government administrative records, that is, data collected by government entities for program administration, regulatory, or law enforcement purposes. Because these administrative records exist, there is interest in using them much more—both alone and in combination with surveys—to try to enhance the quality, scope, and cost-efficiency of statistical products and to reduce response burden on the public.
Not enough is known about the quality of these new sources of data, and considerable work is required to assess their usefulness for producing
statistics. Some may be useful as is; other may require scrubbing or statistical transformation. Furthermore, for statistical purposes, it may be necessary to combine or blend multiple data sources, which is more complex than working with a single dataset. However, there are statistical methods and models for combining information from multiple data sources.
Some administrative records held by federal agencies are prohibited from being shared among agencies. And for some records held by states and localities, there is no mandate and limited incentive to share them with federal statistical agencies.
CONCLUSION 3-4 Legal and administrative barriers limit the statistical use of administrative datasets by federal statistical agencies.
CONCLUSION 3-5 State and local governments may respond to incentives from the federal government to provide access to their administrative data by federal statistical agencies for statistical purposes.
RECOMMENDATION 3-1 Federal statistical agencies should systematically review their statistical portfolios and evaluate the potential benefits and risks of using administrative data. To this end, federal statistical agencies should create collaborative research programs to address the many challenges in using administrative data for federal statistics.
Large amounts of private-sector data—such as credit card transactions, scanner data, cell phone data, and Internet searches—are generated for commercial use. These sources hold the potential to improve the timeliness and level of detail of national statistics. These data are extremely diverse, and there are many issues of access, quality, and usability that would have to be addressed to consider them for federal statistical use.
RECOMMENDATION 4-1 Federal statistical agencies should systematically review their statistical portfolios and evaluate the potential benefits of using private-sector data sources.
RECOMMENDATION 4-2 The Federal Interagency Council on Statistical Policy should urge the study of private-sector data and evaluate both their potential to enhance the quality of statistical products and the risks of their use. Federal statistical agencies should provide annual public reports of these activities.
Any consideration of expanding the use of data must have privacy as a core value. Federal privacy laws have established clear limitations on the collection and use of personally identifiable information, and statistical agencies have a strong tradition of data confidentiality and stewardship. Nonetheless, data breaches pose real risks to the public. As federal statistical agencies seek to combine multiple datasets, they need to simultaneously address how to control risks from privacy breaches. Privacy-enhancing techniques and privacy-preserving statistical data analysis can be valuable in these efforts and enable the use of private-sector and other alternative data sources for federal statistics.
RECOMMENDATION 5-1 Statistical agencies should engage in collaborative research with academia and industry to continuously develop new techniques to address potential breaches of the confidentiality of their data.
RECOMMENDATION 5-2 Federal statistical agencies should adopt modern database, cryptography, privacy-preserving, and privacy-enhancing technologies.
In the decentralized U.S. statistical system, there are 13 agencies whose mission is primarily the creation and dissemination of statistics and more than 100 agencies that engage in statistical activities. However, there is currently no agency directly charged with facilitating access to and the use of multiple data sources for the benefit of the entire statistical system. There is a need for stronger coordination and collaboration to enable access to and evaluation of administrative and private-sector data sources for federal statistics.
RECOMMENDATION 6-1 A new entity or an existing entity should be designated to facilitate secure access to data for statistical purposes to enhance the quality of federal statistics.
Privacy protections would have to be fundamental to the mission of this entity.
CONCLUSION 6-1 For the proposed new entity to be sustainable, the data for which it has responsibility would need to have legal protections for confidentiality and be protected, using the strongest privacy protocols offered to personally identifiable information while permitting statistical use.
RECOMMENDATION 6-2 The proposed new entity should maximize the utility of the data for which it is responsible while protecting privacy by using modern database, cryptography, privacy-preserving, and privacy-enhancing technologies.
There are many questions about how the entity would function and who would be able to access data for statistical purposes. The panel’s second report will examine organizational models for a new entity, quality frameworks for multiple data sources, statistical techniques for combining data from multiple sources, privacy-enhancing and privacy-preserving techniques, as well as the information technology implications for implementing a new paradigm that would combine diverse data sources.