From health and education to migration: Data research offers the opportunity to answer larger socially relevant questions using large, linkable datasets. For a long time, however, science had no access to the databases of ministries and other authorities. That has now changed. “A change in the law now makes it possible to research microdata,” explains Sibylle Wentker, Director of International Relations, Fellowships & Awards, Research Funding at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW).
In an interview, she reports on the newly established, protected virtual data room of the Austrian Micro Data Center (AMDC) at Statistics Austria, and the new OeAW funding program “Data:Research:Austria”, which is endowed with nine million euros to specifically promote data research in Austria. The call for applications started on March 6th.
What are we actually talking about when we talk about data research?
Sibylle Wentker: Data research means the scientific use of officially recorded microdata that relate to a large number of individuals. For example, data on education, health, migration, the job market and taxes, or information on demographic and socioeconomic surveys. This is anonymous data, and strict data protection requirements apply when it is used. Therefore, conclusions about individuals cannot be drawn.
What potential does data research hold for basic research?
Wentker: It is a great research opportunity for social science issues in a variety of ways. Data research allows conclusions to be drawn about developments in society. While empirical social research used to have to ask people about their income or their health to get this data, it can now use income or health records, for example.
“Data doesn't lie,” you might say. At least, data does not forget or confuse anything. This means that standardized and already existing data can be accessed and interlinked with other registry data. This increases the reliability of these large amounts of data and, of course, provides statistical accuracy – and enables new basic research on socially relevant issues.
In Austria, use for research purposes was restricted for a long time. What is different now?
Wentker: Until now, there was no legal basis in Austria for using these data sets for research purposes. There were also reservations about data research for data protection reasons. A change in the law has now made it possible to research microdata. Since July 1, 2022, the Austrian Micro Data Center (AMDC) has been located at Statistics Austria as a protected, virtual data room for research. Scientific institutions can now access contractually agreed data under strict data protection conditions. There are also other institutions that provide data for scientific use.
How does this compare to the rest of Europe?
Wentker: Data research has been carried out in Denmark, Finland and Norway for years. It is also possible in Germany. In Austria, until now, data from comparable European countries had to be used to be able to draw analogies.
What is special about the Austrian Micro Data Center?
Wentker: By establishing a virtual space, Austria has created a very simple system. To be able to research the new source of data, the research institution must be accredited by Statistics Austria. By now, dozens of institutions, including of course the OeAW, have been accredited.
Another special aspect is that the efforts went in two directions: On the one hand, a secure environment to protect the data of individuals was created. On the other hand, it is also important that ministries and authorities, i.e., all those who keep records, make their data available to Statistics Austria for the AMDC. The more data there is in the AMDC, the better societal questions can be answered.
There is now also a funding program at the OeAW for data-driven research about society. What are the key details?
Wentker: Thanks to funds from the “Fonds Zukunft Österreich”, we will have a total of 9 million euros at our disposal in the coming years to specifically promote data research in Austria. On March 6th we announced the first of three project rounds. Any research that works with these sources is welcome, i.e., we are open to all topics and to researchers from all disciplines. Each project has a duration of up to two years and a budget of between 150,000 and 350,000 euros.
The application takes place in two steps: First, a preliminary application should be submitted, in which the idea is outlined. If this is convincing, we invite a full application, in the course of which a concrete offer for a specific data package is prepared together with the AMDC and, if the application is approved, contractually fixed.