Behind Closed Doors With the TRDC
Gale Boyd, Director of the Triangle Research Data Center (TRDC), has joked in the past that the TRDC is one of Duke’s well-kept secrets. That it has flown under the radar makes sense given that the data itself is protected, accessed only through the TRDC’s secure computer laboratories. The Center, part of a national network of RDCs, acts as a common access point for restricted-use microdata from federal statistical agencies.
Access to this information is highly restricted, requiring a federal background check and a sworn oath that the individual will protect it for life. The process, says Boyd, is lengthy. But once access is granted, revealing microdata can mean the difference between unanswered questions and answers that not only illuminate research areas, but also pose more questions for consideration. Boyd sites one study that was able to differentiate individuals by which side of the highway they resided. “This being able to get down into the details can really change our understanding,” he says, “things that are sort of hidden in the big picture start to emerge in more detailed data, including things that you weren’t expecting.” He jokingly adds that he often warns researchers to be careful what they wish for as a result.
Of the datasets available, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the Census Bureau, and the National Center for Health Statistics directly report to the federal network. Many other agencies participate at varying levels, including the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Unlike other RDCs in the nation, the TRDC offers two secure computer laboratories in close proximity to one another — one laboratory in Durham within the Social Science Research Institute in Gross Hall and the other in the Research Triangle at RTI International.
Once almost exclusively the domain of economists, the center is now attracting a range of researchers from the social sciences, including sociologists and demographers. Boyd credits the move to SSRI with this rise in interest. The addition of public health datasets has attracted researchers from that field as well.
Paralleling the Triangle RDC’s growth is the growing RDC network across the nation. Founded in 1999, the Duke location was just the fourth RDC in the nation, with locations equally divided between West and East Coast universities. Now, the network will include more than twenty locations, with more yet to be confirmed. Clearly, the word is getting out about the power of these research data centers.