SALT LAKE CITY — The state's academic researchers will soon have significantly easier access to restricted-use federal data thanks to a new data center coming to the University of Utah next year.
The so-named Wasatch Front Research Data Center will be installed at the Carolyn and Kem C. Gardner Commons on campus and is expected to be ready for use in about a year, according to U. spokeswoman Brooke Adams.
The center will be designated as a Federal Statistical Research Data Center — of which there are currently 29 nationwide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The closest such facility opened at the University of Colorado Boulder last year.
The centers are designed as secure locations where heavily protected and sensitive federal demographic data can be accessed for research. Traveling to one out of state is necessary for many academic researchers in Utah and can be time and cost intensive, said Ken Smith, distinguished professor of family sciences at the U. and director of the Utah Population Database.
"They have to go to some other place to do the work, so it is very inconvenient, it's expensive," Smith told the Deseret News. "If you fly to (Washington), D.C. or Boulder, Colorado, or Seattle … you'd have to go there and arrange (to stay) for a week.
"So it's a cost issue. And getting (research grants is) difficult, so if you have to put a bunch of money in there for travel, and your time, it obviously makes you less competitive no matter how strong your idea is."
The U. "found at least 50 important research projects underway in Utah that would benefit from access to the center," Adams said in a release.
"It's not like Utah researchers can't do this, but they can't do it as effectively" without the center, Smith said.
The $300,000 grant to establish the specially designated center was awarded by the federally run National Science Foundation, whose mission is to support research. The grant will also go toward the development of the center during its first three years of operation.
Federal Statistical Research Data Centers hold immense amounts of valuable and richly detailed so-called "micro-data" from the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Center for Health Statistics, down to the neighborhood level.
The depth of detail those databases provide is "almost an essential service for people who are doing … social, economic and medical research," Smith explained.
"The vast store of newly accessible data … will be available to approved researchers working on a wide range of important social and medical issues, from aging to health, air quality and family economics," Adams said.
"Such projects might include looking at how neighborhood features affect obesity and how proximity of higher education options impacts students' decision-making and household budgets."
Because of laws governing the permitted use of the sensitive data by researchers, Smith said, stringent security measures will be a big part of the U.'s preparation to host such a center.
"We can't have Tom Cruise falling out of the sky on a cable with a thumb drive and downloading and escaping through the air duct," Smith quipped. "So we have to have all these screens on the air ducts, we have to have high-grade metal mesh built into the wall so no one can punch a hole from the adjoining room, we have to have restrictions on all the ceilings and all the walls."
The center, whose "communication hub" will connect to servers in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta that contain the relevant data, will be subjected to a federal inspection to ensure it is secure, he said.
"We don't want to cut any corners because this is not something you trifle with," Smith said. "You really have to be careful."
After the first three years, the plan is for the center to be completely self-sustaining fiscally. Plans of how to finance it long term are still in the early stage, "but there's likely to be some fees" to use it, Smith said.
BYU and Utah State University assisted the U. in applying for the grant, and will also be using the new center extensively, Smith said.
"It had to be somewhere, and so it made sense to be here because it's between the two (others)," he said. "But at its core, it's really a collaborative, across the state."
Researchers from state agencies are also expected to use the center, Adams said.
"(The U.'s) job will be to kind of be matchmaker and encourage, whenever possible, collaboration with other institutions and other investigators," Smith said.
He added that "the ability to form teams … will be more practical when it's right in your own backyard."