More flexible access to CBS microdata for researchers

/ Author: Miriam van der Sangen
Statistics Netherlands (CBS) possesses a wealth of microdata. Under strict conditions, authorised researchers are allowed access to these detailed data. Access can be granted on site at the CBS premises or via a secure internet connection with the researcher’s own location (remote access). The remote access option is currently being used by 700 researchers for 300 projects worldwide. The files themselves remain stored on a CBS server and researchers are able to carry out analyses remotely via a secure internet connection. CBS wants to make its remote access services to researchers more flexible. To this effect, a pilot programme was launched on 18 January 2017, with users from various research institutes including the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB), the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL).

Greater responsibility

Wim Schaasberg is head of Data Services at CBS. His team makes sure that users can gain access to microdata through Remote Access (RA). ‘Access to microdata is possible only under strict conditions. At the moment, researchers are required to have a separate computer in a lockable space. They gain remote access to the project environment by way of a fingerprint reader which is linked to a specific computer. We want to make the way they gain access more flexible. That is why CBS has launched a pilot project with researchers receiving a token as well as a code via text message, so they can have access to data from any workplace. From a technical and organisational perspective, this is a major change. We provide more flexible access and researchers are given a greater responsibility.’

Awareness test

During an official meeting on 18 January 2017 at the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, about 30 researchers from CPB, SCP and PBL received a demonstration on how to gain access to the RA environment. They also underwent a so-called awareness test, involving a multiple choice questionnaire on secure handling of CBS privacy-sensitive data. Altogether around 60 researchers take part in this pilot programme. Project leader John Kartopawiro explains: ‘The pilot lasts one and a half months. This is followed by a survey evaluation in which researchers share their experiences. If the pilot is successful, CBS will introduce more flexible access to its microdata. We estimate that it will take about one year before all of the 700 researchers have switched to this new working method. We also hope that even more researchers will register to start conducting research via remote access. Our aim is to give scientists access to microdata in the best, least expensive and safest way possible.’

‘Our aim is to give scientists access to microdata in the best, least expensive and safest way possible’

Fingerprint boxes

Karen van der Wiel works as Programme Manager Education at CPB. She has worked with RA for ten years: ‘I joined a pilot programme during my doctoral studies at the University of Tilburg. At the time, CBS was using fingerprint boxes and it sometimes took me half an hour to get access to the microdata. Fortunately, the present boxes are much better. My current work at CPB mainly involves projects for which we use CBS education data. At the moment I spend less time at my computer, which is a shame because I still really enjoy working with these data!’ Van der Wiel thinks the available possibilities of microdata access and various file linkages are highly important for her work. ‘It enables us to better inform policymakers on policy effectiveness. So I am satisfied with the services, although I am always caught off guard by the charges as soon as the invoice comes in (CBS charges a fee to cover part of the expense for infrastructure as well as for administrative and organisational handling, ed.).’ She is positive about the new possibilities offered by CBS: ‘At CPB, you often have to fight for a spot at one of the five remote access computers. This capacity problem will now be resolved. It will also be nice to be able to continue working on an analysis during the evening once in a while, I think.’

Wish list

Jonneke Bolhaar also works at CPB, and is a researcher with a lot of experience in working via remote access. ‘I have used microdata to measure the effectiveness of active labour market policies, map flexible labour, analyse gradual retirement towards pension and map the roads towards a teaching career; it’s a wide range of topics, mainly in the field of labour market, social security and education.’ Bolhaar is particularly pleased with the wide variety in available microdata. She also finds the microdata team is always very helpful and usually quick in responding to questions. ‘But I do have a small wish list. For example, the available memory capacity can be small at times when working on such large files. As a researcher, especially when I am being asked to give policy advice, I prefer to have access to the most recent files so I can make a quick assessment of new policy measures. Unfortunately, this is not always an option yet, although there has been progress in this area over the past six years.’