Benefits of microdata dissemination
Dissemination is a key responsibility of a statistical agency. A review of data producers’ mission statements, dissemination policies, and experience around the world underlines the importance of and reasons for giving access to microdata files. There are also a number of issues for NSOs and other providers and collectors of data to consider as they formulate and implement microdata dissemination policies and programs. Issues include the costs and expertise involved; questions of data quality; potential misuse and misunderstanding of data by users; legal and ethical matters; and maintaining the trust and support of respondents.
The main reason—and often the only explicit reason—as to why data producers share their microdata is to support research. After conducting a survey, the agencies that collect data normally produce a wide range of tabular output to give users the highlights and a broad overview of the results. They can hardly be expected, nor are they funded, to identify all the research questions that could be addressed using these data. Microdata files offer researchers considerable flexibility to identify relationships and interaction between phenomena covered in a survey, thereby fostering the diversity and quality of research.
Enhancing the credibility of official statistics
Broader access to microdata demonstrates producers’ confidence in the data by making possible their replication or verification by independent parties.
Improving the reliability and relevance of data
A closer relationship between data providers and knowledgeable users can result in other benefits. The use of data often provides insights for potential improvements, such as in survey design and microdata dissemination. Feedback to a national statistical office can be built into the microdata dissemination process. For example, the US Census Bureau formalized the process of feedback from researchers, and user feedback can result in survey improvement over time.
Reducing duplication in data collection
Making microdata files available to users often discourages them from collecting data they require on their own. This reduces the burden on respondents and minimizes the risk of inconsistent studies of the same topic.
Increasing return on investment
“Sharing and open access to publicly funded research data not only helps to maximize the research potential of new digital technologies and networks, but provides greater returns from the public investment in research. (...) “Continuously growing quantities of data are collected by publicly funded researchers and research institutions. This rapidly expanding body of research data represents both a massive investment of public funds and a potential source of the knowledge needed to address the myriad challenges facing humanity. “To promote improved scientific and social return on the public investments in research data, OECD member countries [for example] have established a variety of laws, policies and practices concerning access to research data at the national level. In this context, international guidelines would be an important contribution to fostering the global exchange and use of research data.” [from OECD Principles and Guidelines for Access to Research Data from Public Funding]
Leveraging funding for statistics
The more data files are disseminated and used, the more valuable they will appear to funding bodies. This understanding can encourage sponsor agencies to finance data collection. Indeed, in some cases, evidence of use is a requirement of financial sponsors. Better use of data means a better return for survey sponsors, who will therefore be more inclined to support data collection activities. Increasingly, funding of surveys by international sponsors is subordinated to dissemination of the resulting datasets.
Reducing the cost of data dissemination
A final benefit can accrue to data collectors by way of improved efficiency, in that they may reduce the number of pre-defined tables they produce and devote more time to providing high-level analytical results. Highlighting this via the media and education sector, for example, can appeal to a broader audience and encourage support for the work of data collectors, such as national statistical offices. When researchers probe more deeply, however, such tables will not be sufficient. Efficiency should also be considered in the context of costs of producing and disseminating microdata files. These issues are reviewed in the next section.
Complying with a contractual or legal obligation
In some countries, public agencies have an obligation to disseminate some of their microdata. Data collection is often funded by the taxpayer and thus considered a public good. In other cases, data collection is funded by sponsoring organizations that require the resulting data be made accessible to researchers. This obligation to disseminate microdata does not conflict with the obligation to maintain confidentiality and privacy. The responsibility of deciding on microdata to be published and procedures to be implemented to generate public-use files lies with the organization’s chief statistician or a data release committee established by the organization.
Promoting development of new tools for using data
A new movement, often referred to as the “open-data” movement, has gained much ground in recent years. At its heart is the concept that data collected using public funds or under the auspices of a public agency are a “public good.” Several governments have adopted this view; see, for example, the Open Government Initiative in the US (www.data.gov) or its UK equivalent (http://data.gov.uk). Such a movement challenges the public to add value to existing data. By providing unrestricted access to microdata, such initiatives promote the development of new software applications, especially innovative applications of Web 2 technology.