Census research center gives Emory faculty an edge

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | March 8, 2012

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The Atlanta Census Research Data Center offers abundant opportunities for Emory researchers.

When Emory graduate student Erik Nesson learned the University was working to help bring a U.S. Census Bureau Research Data Center to Atlanta, he hoped it would be in time to aid his own research project — and the clock was running.

Nesson, a doctoral candidate in health economics who graduates in May, was banking on detailed information that could be gleaned from the data-rich research repository for his dissertation into how both heavy and light smokers respond to tobacco control policies.

Turns out, his timing couldn't have been better.

The Atlanta Census Research Data Center (ACRDC) opened last fall within a secure computer room at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta to provide restricted data for social, economic and health research.

Now, Nesson joins the first wave of Emory researchers to be granted a rare opportunity — the chance to study a virtual smorgasbord of government microdata not readily available to the general public.

From economic, business, trade and labor data to household and crime surveys, health statistics and manufacturing reports, the available material "goes far beyond what you would immediately associate with census data," says Nesson, who describes working at the center as "a nerd's trip to Nirvana."

Sifting through national health data, Nesson found that light smokers weren't really changing their behaviors, but heavy smokers were — reducing the number of cigarettes they smoked, but also inhaling more intensely and switching brands, so the level of nicotine in their systems never really changed.

Access to restricted data, he says, made all the difference.

"It's a huge competitive advantage," Nesson explains. "It's hard enough to think of ideas for dissertations, things no one has done before or ways to improve on what people have done before. The ridiculous amount of data they have [at the ACRDC] will be a great recruiting tool for people interested in really any field."

Center gives research edge

Not only do Emory researchers benefit from the convenience of a local center, they value the savings it offers.

Research trips to the next closest centers — in North Carolina or Maryland  — would cost both time away from the classroom and travel funds, says David Frisvold, assistant professor of economics at Emory, who is working with the ACRDC for research into soft drink taxes and childhood obesity.

Although the data Frisvold needs are available elsewhere, he has had to pay steep fees to access what he can now examine at the ACRDC at no cost. "It makes a big difference," he acknowledges.

Data at the center are restricted primarily due to privacy concerns. Researchers must submit to a rigorous background check, receive data security training, and submit a formal application to win approval for their projects in order to work in the highly secure computer lab.

When the ACRDC opened, Frisvold was already studying how sales taxes on soft drinks —a strategy to reduce childhood obesity and raise revenue for budget-strapped states — affect childhood obesity. He not only needed regional tax information, but a complete portrait of consumers: where people lived, their height, weight and soft drink consumption patterns.

With access to restricted data, "we have a very precise estimate on the impact of soft drink taxes on body mass index," says Frisvold, whose project also involves colleagues at Yale University and Bates College.

Atlanta as a research hub

Emory is part of a consortium of supporting partners to bring the census research center to Atlanta, now one of only 13 sites in the nation and the first in the southeastern United States.

"The Census Bureau saw this as a natural choice," says ACRDC Executive Director Julie Hotchkiss, who is a research economist and policy adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. "The concentration of research institutions in the metropolitan area really started the conversation."

Last month, the ACRDC hosted four active research projects; half involved Emory researchers. "By the end of the year, we expect to have seven [projects] and anticipate strong growth from there," Hotchkiss says.

"Given the number of consortium members we have right here, just blocks away, I expect we will be one of the most heavily used centers in the country."

Emory benefits in recruitment, retention

From enriched classroom content to cutting-edge research, Emory has much to gain from its ties to the ACRDC, a relationship that should help strengthen faculty distinction and enhance "the recruitment and retention of an excellent and diverse faculty," says Claire Sterk, senior vice provost for academic affairs and Charles Howard Candler professor of public health.

That was true for Neil Mehta, assistant professor of global health, who was already developing restricted data health projects when he arrived at Emory last year. "One of the benefits of choosing Emory was that I would be able to continue to work on my existing projects here in Atlanta," he acknowledges.

Today, Mehta continues his work with the ACRDC with two projects: a study of determinants in race and ethnic differences in child health; and research into how obesity contributes to international differences of life expectancy.

Beyond aiding his own research, he sees the center assisting the University on many levels. Even "grant proposals based on restricted data analysis are strengthened because of Emory's relationship with the ACRDC," he says.