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Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Awards Biocomplexity Institute New Funding to Expand 21st Century Census Curated Data Enterprise

In 1790, then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson supervised the very first U.S. census. Jefferson was responsible for overseeing data collection and certifying the local census results that were collected by judicial district marshals on horseback. In the more than 230 years since, the U.S. Census Bureau has evolved significantly to keep pace with the country’s extraordinary growth and advancement. Upon opening its doors, the Census Bureau was primarily focused on conducting the decennial census. Now, it serves as the nation’s leading provider of comprehensive, quality data about its people, places, and economy. To achieve this lofty mission, the Bureau has long maintained a steadfast commitment to innovation, particularly in technology and data collection.

In 2020, the Biocomplexity Institute at UVA's Social and Decision Analytics Division (SDAD) began working with the Bureau to realize its next iteration focused on a vision to develop a "21st Century Census Curated Data Enterprise." This effort was led by Dr. Sallie Ann Keller, director of the SDAD at the time, and Kenneth Prewitt, former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and current Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University. Keller has since joined the Census Bureau as chief scientist and associate director for research and methodology.

The Curated Data Enterprise (CDE) is both an infrastructure and a continuously evolving ambition to shift the focus from individual data elements and surveys to the purpose and use of the data instead. The vision is to collect, integrate, and maintain data from a variety of public and private sources to empower the Bureau to design statistical products based on what data users need. This Statistical Data Products First approach will use the CDE to develop more user-centric comprehensive measures of America’s demographic changes, social trends, and economic activity. This framework will better enable the bureau to study complex current issues facing local decision-makers, like those related to climate change and disaster response.

With support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Institute spent the last few years developing a rigorous, transparent, repeatable CDE framework. The framework creates a scaffold to take a given purpose and move through a series of steps starting with problem identification through statistical modeling and analysis. The framework has built in continuous communication and dissemination of results to stakeholders, as well as equity and ethics reviews to ensure integrity throughout the process.

Recently, the Biocomplexity Institute was awarded new funding from the Sloan Foundation to aggressively design a Use Case Research Program to develop the CDE. The latest round of funding spans through August 2023, and will enable the Institute to design a research program focused on use cases to both highlight and exercise the capabilities needed to successfully develop and deploy the proposed CDE. This work is being led by principal investigators Stephanie Shipp, acting director of the Institute’s SDAD; John Thompson, former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and Distinguished Institute Fellow with the Biocomplexity Institute and Initiative; and, Joseph Salvo, former chief demographer at the New York City Department of City Planning and Institute Fellow with the Biocomplexity Institute and Initiative.

"The ultimate goal is to flip the paradigm and move the Bureau and the broader research community away from using individual surveys and towards an integration of diverse data sources and the development of data products based on what users need," said Shipp. "The CDE represents this paradigm shift. Designing a Use Case Program will allow us to advance to the next step of implementing the CDE and testing its key features."

More specifically, the latest Sloan Foundation funding will enable the Institute to create criteria for selecting, deploying, and evaluating use cases; conduct a pilot demonstration use case focused on identifying populations vulnerable to food insecurity and a means of assessing early CDE capabilities (along with two smaller use case feasibility studies); and, develop an overall plan for implementing the Use Case Research Program.

"We are now at the point of needing to test and implement the CDE concept, and it’s imperative that this be done with real-world questions, issues, and key stakeholders who might stand to benefit from this work," Shipp said. "Our first foray into this will be a pilot use case on food insecurity to understand CDE capabilities that are necessary to discover, acquire, compute, and disseminate new measures. Currently, it is not possible to measure and assess whether existing programs are successful, and we hope to change that."

The CDE Use Case Program will play a key role in informing the Census Bureau's current modernization with an eye toward the 2030 Census. Therefore, implementation of the Program is planned to begin immediately following its design and funding.

"We are very proud to support the Biocomplexity Institute in its CDE expansion efforts,” Sandra Barbosu, Economics Program Officer at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation said. "We look forward to see how this research effort will contribute to a more robust 2030 Census and the health of the federal statistical system."