First Academic Data Centre launched in Groningen

/ Author: Miriam van der Sangen
On 11 July 2017, the first Academic Data Centre of the Netherlands assumed operation. This centre will be where Statistics Netherlands (CBS) and Groningen University (RUG) intend to shape and substantiate their cooperation. During an inspiring two-day Data Challenge event, areas of potential collaboration were explored by around 25 researchers from both institutions. At the end of the programme the framework agreement was officially signed by CBS Director General Dr Tjark Tjin-A-Tsoi and Prof. Dr Sibrand Poppema, President of the Board of the University. The first Academic Data Centre will serve as a tool for more effective implementation of CBS data in scientific research.

Mutual strengths

CBS and RUG have been working together for some time. In various fields of social and economic research individual researchers from both institutions know where to find each other. Director Ronald Stolk of the Centre for Information Technology (CIT), which houses the Academic Data Centre, explains: ‘We had had plans to consolidate our mutual strengths for some time. We wanted to reinforce a more efficient form of collaboration and specifically work together in the disciplines of methodology and data science. We would also like to pool our expertise in the field of remote access (access to CBS microdata under strict conditions, ed.) as well as on virtual workplaces for our researchers. We will have some hurdles to overcome but it is a point on the horizon for us.’


RUG is renowned for its academic achievements in a large number of disciplines. This is confirmed by Stolk: ‘Our knowledge in the field of big data and astronomy goes back several decades. We have worked together in these areas with ASTRON, the Dutch institute for radio astronomy in Dwingeloo (Drenthe Province). In addition, our partnership with the University Medical Centre Groningen (UMCG) has existed for more than 10 years. A longitudinal population study called Lifelines was set up under the lead of the UMCG‘. This study follows participants from a three-generation cohort over a period of at least 30 years in order to unravel the various factors affecting the development and course of chronic diseases. Altogether around 165,000 persons are being followed. ‘This involves a huge amount of privacy-sensitive data. It is very important that these are handled with the utmost care. At the same time, we wish to maximise the use of these data.’

Long-term cooperation

Another interesting academic research project at RUG - in cooperation with Utrecht University, Amsterdam Free University, Nijmegen Radboud University and Rotterdam Erasmus University - is SCOOP (Sustainable Cooperation: Roadmaps to a Resilient Society). ‘This is a large interdisciplinary study which connects research groups from sociology, psychology, history and philosophy, to develop novel solutions for sustainable cooperation in the fields of care, work and integration. We were recently awarded direct government funding under the ‘Gravitation’ programme of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). As part of this research we are also seeking partnership with CBS, for example in the area of municipal data,’ says Stolk.

‘Here in Groningen, we are doing wonderful things and we have a strong network with various organisations’  

Major potential

Barteld Braaksma is innovation manager at CBS. He sees major potential in a partnership with RUG, as became clear during the Data Challenge event held last 10-11 July: ‘We developed a number of case studies together. Using CBS microdata, we looked at how we could obtain a better picture of the career path of alumni. We also explored the creation of a living lab for SCOOP through teamwork collaboration between CBS, RUG and the city of Groningen.’ In addition, Braaksma sees interesting opportunities for CBS to connect with the Lifelines medical study: ‘In particular analysing the medical data in combination with the social data.‘

Point of contact

With a view to organising collaboration between the two institutions in a low¬-treshold way, CBS will offer a local point of contact within the Academic Data Centre at RUG. ‘Researchers can go there with difficult questions and be referred to the specialists at CBS. It reduces the distance,‘ says Braaksma. There is already a sound basis for cooperation: CBS and RUG have much ground in common. ‘Several of our economic statisticians have worked with RUG researchers; and many CBS experts were once students at RUG. An excellent example is CBS chief economist and spokesperson Peter Hein van Mulligen.’

Concrete projects

Wietske Degen is a liaison officer at the RUG Centre for Information Technology. As such, she establishes networks of contacts and connects with external partners of the university such as the municipality of Groningen, the private sector and CBS. Together with Braaksma, she organised the Data Challenge on 10 and 11 July: ‘We hoped to achieve shorter lines between researchers. In addition, we tackled some concrete projects. In the evening, there was time for a joint dinner and a pub quiz, at which participants were able to get to know each other informally.’ The group included not only the (research) staff of CBS and RUG, but also staff of the Lifelines project and the UMCG. In addition, there were participants representing Groningen municipality, where a CBS Urban Data Centre has been in operation since January 2017.

Lots of new ideas

What are the results delivered by the Data Challenge in Degen’s opinion? ‘We explored new research opportunities created by CBS microdata. We also looked at improvements in the technical field - as far as appropriate within the legal framework – to enhance cooperation by combining CBS’ remote access services with RUG virtual workplaces.’ In order to maintain momentum, another meeting between CBS and RUG has been scheduled for the end of July. Degen is already looking forward to it: ‘Groningen is far (by Dutch standards…) from both The Hague and Heerlen. It is important to bridge that physical distance when you are collaborating. Here in Groningen, we are doing wonderful things and we have a strong network with various organisations. We expect that many new ideas will come to fruition by connecting with CBS.’