Dissemination of Statistical Products That Meet Users’ Needs
AN effective statistical agency produces and disseminates statistical products that meet the needs of its users. Users’ needs for information evolve as new tools for using data become available. Once statistical information is made public, it will be used in numerous ways, including ways not originally envisaged, and by numerous types of users, ranging from government officials, to academic scholars, to activists, to students. A statistical agency should continually strive to obtain input from data users on its programs, products, and dissemination tools and methods. Understanding data users’ needs and how they use data products is critical for making an agency’s data services as relevant, accurate, timely, and accessible as possible.
Keeping abreast of the interests of current and potential new users requires continual attention to changes in the relevant policy issues and social and economic conditions in a statistical agency’s domain, as well as changes in technologies for data access. Statistical agencies should work with professional associations, institutes, universities, and scholars to determine the current and emerging needs of research communities. They should also work with relevant professional associations and other organizations to determine the needs of business and industry as well as state and local governments. Statistical agencies can proactively explore the needs of users through advisory committees.
Individual persons, households, businesses, institutions, organizations, and government entities have provided the underlying source data for an agency’s statistics. Furthermore, the public has paid for the
data collection, compilation, and processing. In return, the information created with such data should be accessible in ways that make it as useful as possible to the largest number of users—for decision making, program evaluation, scientific research, and public understanding (see also the Federal Data Strategy in Appendix A).
A statistical agency should strive for the widest possible dissemination of the statistical products it produces, consistent with its obligations to protect confidentiality. The products should be clearly identified, easy to find and use, and well documented. Dissemination should be timely, and information should be made readily available on an equal basis to all users. Agencies should have data curation policies and procedures in place so that data are preserved, fully documented, and accessible for statistical use in future years.30
Statistical agencies disseminate two broad classes of products: products that are publicly available, such as statistical releases, analytical reports, infographics, and public use microdata, and restricted access products, such as datasets containing confidential information, which are available in Federal Statistical Research Data Centers (FSRDCs) or through other restricted arrangements.31
Public Statistical Data Products
Dissemination of aggregate statistics may take the form of regularly updated time series, cross-tabulations of aggregated characteristics of respondents, analytical reports, interactive maps and charts, infographics, profiles, fact sheets, and press releases providing key findings. Such products should be readily accessible through an agency’s website, supplemented by more detailed tabulations and data tools.
While printed statistical reports remain an important product, statistical agencies have introduced new data tools that make it easier for users to discover, query, retrieve, and use statistics on their own. These include redesigned websites, new platforms, interactive tools and applications, customized tables, new mapping capabilities, and APIs.
30 Data curation involves the management of data from collection and initial storage to archiving (or deletion should the data be deemed of no further use—e.g., a data file that represents an initial stage of processing). The purpose of data curation is to ensure that information can be reliably retrieved and understood by future users.
31 See https://www.census.gov/fsrdc. [February 2021]
For publicly available data products, a statistical agency’s dissemination program should include the following elements:
- An established publications policy that describes, for each statistical program, the types of reports and other data releases to be made available, the formats to be used, the audience to be served, and the frequency of release.32
- A variety of avenues for disseminating information about data availability and upcoming releases.
- Multiple data products (suitably processed to protect confidentiality), so that information can be accessed by users with varying skills and needs. Useful data products include not only understandable maps, graphs, indicators, tables, and interactive data tools and applications on statistical agency websites, but also public-use microdata samples when practicable.
- Statistical press releases when data products are made available, produced, and issued by the statistical agency to provide a policy-neutral description of key findings and links to the data. Such releases must not include any policy commentary.33
- Explanatory material for all statistical product releases that assist users in understanding the product and convey the strengths and limitations of the data (see Practice 10).
- Archiving policies that guide decisions on which underlying data assets are to be retained, where they are to be archived (with the National Archives and Records Administration, or an established archive maintained by an academic or other nonprofit institution, or both), and how they are to be made accessible for future secondary analysis while protecting confidentiality.
Individual-level microdata files make it possible for users to conduct in-depth research and analyses that are not possible with aggregate data. Such files contain data for samples of individual respondents that have been processed to protect confidentiality by deleting, aggregating, or modifying any information that might permit individual identification.34 Statistical agencies should keep abreast of new developments in confidentiality protection so that they can continue to provide as much useful
32 See Statistical Policy Directive Nos. 3 and 4 in Appendix A.
33 See Statistical Policy Directive No. 4, Section 6a, in Appendix A.
34 See Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology (2005), Statistical Policy Working Paper #22.
aggregate and microdata as possible at a time of increasing threats to privacy and confidentiality.
Restricted-Access Statistical Products
Some statistical agency data are deemed too difficult to protect in public releases and are made available to bonafide researchers only through some form of restricted access. To provide researchers with the ability to run their own analyses on restricted microdata, some statistical agencies provide access to an analysis engine on their websites that performs the selected statistical operations on the confidential data. Safeguards are built in so that the researcher cannot see the individual records and cannot obtain any output, such as too-detailed tabulations, which could identify individual respondents.35
A second method, pioneered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), is to grant licenses to individual researchers to analyze restricted microdata at their own sites for statistical purposes. Such licenses require that the researchers agree to follow strict procedures for protecting confidentiality and accept liability for penalties if confidentiality is breached.36
A third method is to allow approved researchers to analyze restricted microdata at a secure site for statistical purposes, such as one of the FSRDCs currently located at 30 universities and research organizations around the country. The FSRDC network began as a Census Bureau initiative and now offers access to data from other participating agencies.37 There are also other efforts to provide virtual data enclaves and platforms to analyze data while protecting confidentiality.38
The Evidence Act is expected to facilitate greater use of data for statistical purposes and for evidence and program evaluation. This act requires OMB to issue guidance on tiers of access for data depending on their sensitivity and legal protections. OMB is also required to implement a single-application portal for researcher access to data from different agencies, and this is currently being piloted.39
35 See e.g., https://nces.ed.gov/datalab/index.aspx. [February 2021]
36 For NCES’s licensing procedures and terms, see https://nces.ed.gov/statprog/instruct.asp. [February 2021]
37 See https://www.census.gov/fsrdc. [February 2021]
38 See e.g., https://coleridgeinitiative.org/adrf/ and https://www.norc.org/Research/Capabilities/Pages/data-enclave.aspx. [February 2021]
39 See https://www.icpsr.umich.edu/web/pages/appfed/index.html. [February 2021]