Treasure trove of restricted social science data now available to Pacific Northwest researchers


Get 2011 Data for the United States

By Molly McElroy

UW News and Information

Mark Ellis, a geography professor at the University of Washington, uses non-public data collected by the government to study immigration and unemployment patterns. But since the data are confidential and access to them is restricted, Ellis can’t just have the records sent to him or access them from his UW computer.

Instead, he has had to travel to a Research Data Center maintained by the U.S. Census Bureau and use its secure Internet connection to obtain data kept on census servers in Bowie, Md. At one point in his career, Ellis traveled every other week to UCLA – one of the closest census centers to UW.

He had a young child and other responsibilities and those trips to California became “enormously stressful.”

Ellis led the effort to create a census research center in Washington state. With funding from UW, the state and the National Science Foundation, the Northwest Census Research Data Center officially opened Sept. 24 with Ellis as its director.

“The UW is poised to be a world leader in developing tools for integrating, analyzing and understanding data sets that are high-dimensional, dynamic and large in scale,” UW Provost Ana Mari Cauce said at the center’s grand opening. The local center will help UW reach this goal by providing “a vital resource for our students and faculty in the social, behavioral and health sciences, allowing them to do cutting edge research on campus that was previously impossible without costly travel elsewhere,” she said.

The new center at UW is one of 15 such census outposts across the U.S. It provides qualified researchers access to restricted data from demographic, economic, public health and household surveys collected by the Census Bureau and other federal agencies, including the National Center for Health Statistics and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The records go back to the 1980s, sometimes earlier.

Ellis anticipates that researchers using the center will pursue topics such as the effects of highway tolls on low-income individuals, how neighborhood environments affect health, and improving population estimates in King County to better allocate funding for schools, public transportation and fire and police services.

Economic data provided at the center can help answer questions on the characteristics that help new businesses thrive and the links between entrepreneurialism and job creation.

Researchers must submit a research proposal and obtain a medium-level security clearance to use the Northwest Census Research Data Center.

The process involves:

  • Discussing the research idea with Ellis and Mike Babb, UW Geography grad student and administrator of the Northwest Census Research Data Center, to ensure the topic is feasible.
  • Preparing a proposal detailing the research question, how it will benefit the census, and which datasets are requested
  • Submitting the proposal to the Census Bureau for review by federal agencies and other researchers. Submissions can be made at any time.

Proposals are seldom rejected, but reviewers usually ask researchers to revise their proposals and resubmit them. It takes about four months to hear whether the proposal has been approved, and census officials are trying to decrease that time to about 60 days.

The center – located in George Russell Jr. Hall in the University District – can accommodate 16 users at a time and most of the data is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Fees apply for some users.

Funding for the center came from UW’s College of Arts and Sciences, Office of the Provost and School of Social Work, with additional funds from the National Science Foundation and the Washington State Office of Financial Management.


For more information, contact Ellis at 206-616-6207 or or Babb at 206-543-1528 or

Watch videos from the Northwest Census Research Data Center’s grand opening, including introductory remarks by UW and census officials, instructions for accessing the center, and a research talk by Melissa Martinson of the School of Social Work describing how she used restricted data to study health of U.S. immigrants.

Overview of demographic , public health, household, and economic data available from the Center


US Cities Becoming More Diverse AND More Segregated




The Atlantic Cities blog recently profiled a study by Professor Mark Ellis and colleagues arguing that US cities are diversifying even as they are becoming increasingly segregated. As colleague Richard Wright of Dartmouth argues,  “You can have segregation and diversity in the same place, at the same time”. Their research, The Racially Fragmented City? Neighborhood Racial Segregation and Diversity Jointly Considered:

reflects on the racial configuration of urban space. Previous research tends to posit racial segregation and diversity as either endpoints on a continuum of racial dominance or mirror images of one another. Segregation and diversity must be jointly understood and are necessarily related, but in this paper we make the case that the neighborhood geographies of US metropolitan areas are simultaneously and increasingly marked by both racial segregation and racial diversity. We inspect the neighborhood racial structure of several large metropolitan areas for 1990 and 2000 to demonstrate the “both/and”-ness of segregation and diversity.

The project’s MixedMetro website explores “the complex patterns of segregation and diversity in these communities shape the lives of the people who call them home. It is designed to help users  explore patterns of racial composition in major US metropolitan areas and individual states by state or metro area, and offers lots of maps of urban residential population patterns.