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Restricted-Use Data Application Process

This page provides links to help data users find information to navigate the application process for using restricted-use data from the U.S. Census Bureau. These data are from Census Bureau censuses and surveys of business and households, linked employer-employee data, and administrative records from federal and state agencies. These data are available to qualified researchers with approved projects at secure facilities through the Federal Statistical Research Data Centers (FSRDCs) and in some cases, through virtual access.

The application process for requesting access to restricted-use Census Bureau data in the FSRDCs is evolving. The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 calls for the Federal government to establish a standard application process (SAP) through which agencies, the Congressional Budget Office, State, local, and Tribal governments, researchers, and other individuals, as appropriate, may apply for access to confidential microdata. In response, the federal statistical system is developing the SAP Portal at www.ResearchDataGov.org. The SAP Portal is a web-based data catalog and common application that will serve as a “front door” to apply for confidential data from any of the 16 principal federal statistical agencies and units for evidence building purposes.

The SAP Portal is being developed in a phased approach. On February 28, 2022, the federal statistical agencies launched the SAP Portal data catalog to provide prospective applicants with comprehensive metadata about federal statistical agencies’ confidential microdata. Beginning December 8, 2022, the Census Bureau and the other principal federal statistical agencies and units will begin transitioning applications to the SAP Portal.

Please use the links below for information to guide you in creating an application to request data, get expert help with your application, and answer questions about the process and what to expect.

Assistance from an FSRDC administrator will greatly reduce the need for future revisions to your application. If you are unsure which FSRDC to contact or have a general question, please reach out to the Census Bureau at ced.fsrdc.info@census.gov.

To perform statistical research in an FSRDC using non-public microdata, researchers must be both associated with an approved project and obtain Special Sworn Status (SSS). Applying for SSS includes successfully completing a background investigation and fingerprinting. Those who are approved to take an oath of confidentiality are sworn for life to protect the data and are subject to legal obligations and penalties.

  • Contact your FSRDC administrator for instructions and background investigation forms.
  • Background investigation paperwork can be submitted following project approval (a demonstrated need for SSS).
  • The time required to process an SSS Application will vary. Plan for at least 3 to 4 months before you can start working in the FSRDC lab.
  • All applicants (including U.S. citizens and foreign national researchers) are required to have lived in the U.S. for 36 out of the past 60 months and have a US-based institutional affiliation (e.g., a university). Foreign national clearances may take longer to complete.
  • Security clearances are performed by the Department of Homeland Security. Unforeseen circumstances can extend the time required to obtain a clearance.

The application process for SSS is completed in three phases.

  • Phase one: Complete offline paperwork, provide documentation (including fingerprints and a notarized document), and complete online trainings.
  • Phase two: Complete an online background check that includes your residential history, past foreign travel, education and employment history, and references.
  • Phase three: Complete an interview.
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What Financial Costs are Associated with Working in an FSRDC?

The Federal Statistical Research Data Center (FSRDC) program, through a series of partnerships, provides restricted-use data to qualified researchers on approved projects. The Census Bureau, its partner agencies, and its partner host institutions each seek to offset some of the costs of operating or participating in the FSRDC system, by charging fees. These include RDC access fees, agency data and Special Sworn Status (SSS) fees, and fees for submitting external datasets to the Census Bureau’s Person Identification Validation System (PVS).

RDC Access Fees

The 31 RDCs across the country operate mostly on college campuses and inside Federal Reserve Banks. The institutions hosting individual RDCs incur significant costs for both physical and remote data access.  These costs include start-up costs to build, equip, and secure the facility and ongoing costs to maintain the RDC through staffing, equipment upgrades, and other maintenance, as well as the costs of supporting research proposal development, providing ongoing data concierge services, and disclosure avoidance review. To provide both physical and remote data access to researchers, host institutions must therefore collect fees from consortium institutions, such as nearby universities, or from individual researchers (or their employers). RDC access fees, will vary by location. Contact the RDC Executive Director at the location nearest you to find out more information on access arrangements. Note that in most cases it is best to resolve your access arrangements prior to developing your RDC proposal.

Agency Data and Special Sworn Status Fees

The Federal agency partners of the FSRDC network charge researchers different fees to access their data depending on policies at each agency. Generally speaking, these fees are intended to offset the per project costs charged to agency partners by the FSRDC Project Management Office (PMO). Some agencies also charge researchers using their data a Special Sworn Status application fee. For information on the fees charged by each partner agency, visit the FSRDC Network Fees webpage.

PVS Fees

The Census Bureau’s Person Identification Validation System (PVS) assigns unique anonymized person identifiers (called protected identification keys or PIKs) to federal, commercial, census, and survey data to facilitate linkages across and within files. PVS uses probabilistic matching to assign a unique Census Bureau identifier for each person. As part of their research project, some users may choose to request a unique identifier be placed on an external dataset so that it can be matched to existing datasets managed by the Census Bureau already containing PVS unique identifiers. Consult your local RDC administrator for details on the cost associated with applying unique identifiers through PVS to an external dataset.

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Federal law requires the Census Bureau to protect confidentiality of its data. Disclosure avoidance review is a rigorous process that ensures that project output does not reveal confidential information about individual people, households, or firms. All output from FSRDC projects must be reviewed to ensure it meets the Census Bureau’s disclosure avoidance standards before it can be released by email to the researcher. In order to be discussed outside the RDC, any information derived from confidential data (e.g., sample sizes, estimated effects) must undergo disclosure review and be cleared for public release.

Disclosure risk assessment is performed on each project proposal. Discussing disclosure concerns (e.g., small geographies, low cell counts, markets dominated by select few firms) can improve the likelihood that the proposal passes the disclosure review. We strongly recommend that you consult your local RDC administrator regarding this part of the proposal.

Estimates from statistical models, such as regression coefficients and standard errors, are allowed. Most output will be of this type. A limited quantity of summary statistics to support the model-based output is also allowed. Additional review and special disclosure avoidance techniques may be required for graphs, maps, and statistics based on small areas. Information about particular individuals, households, or businesses can never be released. We strongly discourage submitting intermediate numerical output for disclosure avoidance review for the purpose of discussion with collaborators or dissertation advisors. Doing so can limit the type and amount of output that can be released later. Instead, researchers may consider releasing signs and statistical significance of their estimates only; this type of output receives expedited review. Even qualitative descriptions of research findings may need to undergo disclosure avoidance review.

When you are ready to release your output, you will need to fill out a form describing your output, how the output fits within the scope of your proposal, underlying samples, and variables. Plan for 6 weeks after the output is produced to receive your cleared results. This includes initial review by your RDC administrator and possible revisions to your output or supporting documentation, followed by review by a Disclosure Avoidance Officer. Short, simple requests take less time to prepare and review, while requests that require Disclosure Review Board approval due to higher disclosure risk will take longer. Output that includes only signs and statistical significance is reviewed more quickly. Program reviews also take less time, unless a large amount of code is requested.

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How and where do I access the data after my project is approved?

After your research proposal and Special Sworn Status (SSS) security clearance are both approved, you may make plans with the Administrator at one of the Federal Statistical Research Data Center (FSRDC) locations to begin work on the project. All project work must be done inside the FSRDC secure facility. There are strict physical and cyber restrictions regarding data protection within the FSRDCs. These restrictions will be covered during your first day of orientation as well as in required annual security trainings. Examples of data protections include never disclosing any information about that data (including preliminary and qualitative results) without official/formal approval, no cell phone or internet use, and never allowing others access to the FSRDC.  

What if there are multiple researchers on a project, who want to work at different FSRDC locations?

All FSRDC locations connect to the same secure research server, so all researchers on the project (regardless of FSRDC location) will access the same project space. Since cell phone use is prohibited in the FSRDCs, researchers on the same project can communicate with each other via an “instant messaging” application that is available within the project space. There are VOIP phones available in the RDC that can be used with certain restrictions.

I’ve heard that other researchers using restricted government data can access the data remotely at their home or work office. Is my project eligible for remote access?

The FSRDC makes remote access possible for some projects. Specifically, Census Bureau projects that only use Title 13 data (i.e., not Title 26 data or Title 13 data commingled with Title 26 data) are eligible for remote access. Some government agencies have implemented programs for some of their data that allow researchers with prior experience in the secure FSRDCs to access their projects remotely. All new researchers must start their project within the FSRDC facility. Participation in remote access pilot programs is subject to authorization by the appropriate government agencies, data sponsors, and existing data agreements. Some agencies may approve some of their data for remote access, but not all. Therefore, researchers on many projects will not be eligible for remote access because of restrictions associated with the datasets to which they have access. It is also important to note that some agencies have elected not to participate in remote access for their data offered by the Census Bureau, so those projects must remain in the FSRDC facilities – regardless of data agreements or researcher experience. New researchers to the FSRDC program should plan to work within the FSRDCs. Additional questions about remote access should be directed to an FSRDC Administrator.   

What software options are available in the FSRDC computing environment?

Learn more about the FSRDC computing environment and available software.

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All applications for Census Bureau restricted-use data undergo a thorough review process involving a review team of subject matter experts. Each proposal receives a minimum of two subject matter reviews, a review by the Policy Coordination Office, a disclosure avoidance review, and a data availability review. The duration of the Census Bureau’s review is a maximum of twelve weeks from the point the application is received to the rendering of a decision.

In addition to internal Census Bureau reviews, additional reviews by data providers may be necessary. The criteria for these reviews will be based on the statutory limitations of the data provider and the applicable data use agreement. These data provider reviews may require additional documentation and add to the duration of the overall review process.

Census Bureau reviewers evaluate the proposal based on the following criteria:

  • Statistical Purpose – The use of Census Bureau restricted-use data must have a statistical purpose. Data use for commercial, regulatory, or enforcement purposes is prohibited.
  • Allowed-Use – The use of Census Bureau restricted-use data must be consistent with Title 13, U.S.C., the Privacy Act, and our data use agreements with data providers.
  • Programmatic Benefit – All proposals must demonstrate one or more benefits to the Census Bureau under one of thirteen potential programmatic benefits. These benefits support the Census Bureau’s mission and are required under Title 13.
  • Statistical Disclosure Limitation (SDL) – All proposals must adhere to statistically-sound and Census Bureau approved statistical disclosure limitation methodologies to protect the identity of respondents and to adhere to confidentiality provisions under Title 13.
  • Demonstrated Need – Proposals must demonstrate a need for restricted-use data, meaning that the proposed research goals cannot be achieved with public-use data.
  • Feasibility – All research must be feasible methodologically, within the timeframe proposed, and given the expertise of the project supporters. In addition, the Census Bureau must be able to support the request with existing data and/or facilities.
  • Maintaining Public Trust – All proposals must support the Census Bureau’s ability to maintain public trust and credibility among the data user, respondent, and stakeholder communities.
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Federal Statistical Research Data Center (RDC) administrators are available to guide you through proposal development. Contact the RDC administrator at the nearest RDC early on. If you are unsure which RDC to contact, look at the list of consortium members on the RDC partner institutions page to determine if your institution is affiliated with a particular RDC. RDC administrators will work closely with you to build a strong proposal before submission via the Standard Application Process (SAP). Working with an RDC administrator will reduce the time to completion and increase the likelihood that a project receives approval.

RDC administrators can:

  • Answer detailed questions about restricted data provided by the Census Bureau if you cannot find answers in the SAP Metadata Repository or in the Census Bureau’s list of restricted-use data.
  • Answer questions about the SAP requirements.
  • Help you figure out how your project can provide the required benefits to the Census Bureau.
  • Provide feedback on draft versions of your application before submission. This is strongly encouraged!
  • Answer questions about what it is like to work in an RDC, including software availability.

RDC administrators cannot:

  • Answer detailed questions about restricted data provided by federal agencies other than the Census Bureau. Direct those questions to the appropriate federal agency; the RDC administrator can help you identify the appropriate contact.
  • Provide information about RDC seat fees. These are determined by the Executive Director at each RDC location.
  • Review proposals for the purpose of revising for style, grammar, spelling, or punctuation.
  • Assist with projects that use only public-use data. Contact the Census Bureau Customer Help Center at 1-800-923-8282 for assistance with questions about public-use Census data. You may also contact a Census Bureau Data Dissemination Specialist at 1-844-ASK-DATA (1-844-275-3282) or by email at census.askdata@census.gov.
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Page Last Revised - June 7, 2023
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