Tapping the Data

USC Marshall professors play key role in bringing USC’s Federal Statistical Research Data Center back online

September 08, 2020

USC researchers from every discipline will soon once again have access to a treasure trove of non-public federal census data, thanks to the efforts of a team of business professors.

Rodney Ramcharan, associate professor of finance and business economics, together with his colleagues John Matsusaka, Charles F. Sexton Chair in American Enterprise and professor of finance and business economics, and Vincenzo Quadrini, James McN. Stancill Chair in Business Administration and professor of finance and business economics, helped recruit and install a new administrator to oversee USC’s on-campus Federal Statistical Research Data Center (RDC). 

Recently sworn in as the new administrator for the USC center is Joseph Saraceno, a Ph.D. candidate in the Political Science and International Relations department of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He studies American politics and has published, among other things, research examining the representation of minority interests within majoritarian political institutions. Also at USC, Saraceno is a graduate student in the Master of Science in Applied Economics & Econometrics program, a Bannerman Fellow, and a Political Institutions and Political Economy (PIPE) Fellow.

“I can’t overstate the value of having access to this kind of fundamental data."—Rodney Ramcharan, associate professor of finance and business economics

There are currently 29 open Federal Statistical Research data centers. They partner with more than 50 research organizations including universities, non-profit research institutions, and government agencies. In California, Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, and UC Irvine all host RDCs. Stanford recently built a dedicated facility to house its RDC. For a research university such as USC, an RDC represents a portal to an invaluable collection of classified government microdata that can push forward research across nearly every discipline.

“We are ecstatic that we’ve been able to help reopen USC’s RDC,” said Ramcharan. “I can’t overstate the value of having access to this kind of fundamental data. If you’re interested in medicine, or COVID, this is the central place for your research. If you’re an economist or a political scientist, access to an RDC is critical to your research.

“This is a huge resource for scholarship at USC,” he said.

USC opened its RDC in 2014 through a joint effort by Dornsife, the Sol Price School of Public Policy, and the Marshall School of Business. But by 2019, staff changes had rendered it functionally dormant. Finding and installing a new facility administrator was the first step in reactivating the RDC.

Each RDC must have an administrator— technically a Census Bureau employee —who serves as a bridge between the Census and the research center. The RDC administrator helps researchers write the detailed proposals that then go to the Census for approval and the necessary security clearance. Because of the security issues, this employee must also be a U.S. citizen.

Renewed Interest

New USC RDC administrator Joseph Saraceno
New RDC Administrator Joseph Saraceno.

Ramcharan, an economist by training with experience in the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund before joining academia, understood the value of the data available and took the lead in the efforts to recruit a new administrator, even volunteering to become USC’s RDC executive director.

“Finding a Ph.D. candidate at USC interested in this job who is also a U.S citizen is tough,” Ramcharan admitted. But Saraceno’s credentials and professional interest surpassed a high bar.

“As a social scientist in training, it has become evident that data collected by federal agencies—even the publicly available versions—can be useful for our research,” said Saraceno. “Not only are they often essential for statistical modeling, but they provide a context to situate our understanding of the world. The great success of RDCs across the country serve as a testament to the untapped potential of the restricted microdata.”

Since access to the RDC software and data must still be conducted on site for security reasons, Saraceno’s first steps will be to oversee the safe, gradual reopening of the Center.

“As the pandemic has raged on, many research facilities across the university, including the RDC, have been limited in operation,” Saraceno said. “We are working with the team here at USC to best accommodate those who would like to use our Center, and we are planning a series of outreach efforts to let researchers know about this resource and how they can access it.”

For USC faculty, post-graduates, and other USC-affiliated researchers, access to RDC data is free.

Bearing the cost of the RDC is a joint effort between the Marshall School and the Provost’s office. “An RDC enables our faculty to do impactful research that resonates,” Ramcharan said. “We are excited to get the word out to all researchers across disciplines at USC.”


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