J-PAL North America Resources for Obtaining and Using Administrative Data

In the last scene of the iconic 1981 Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, an anonymous bureaucrat locks a priceless treasure into a crate and wheels it into a vast government warehouse, where it will presumably languish in obscurity indefinitely.

Administrative data from countless government agencies and large institutions can sometimes feel similarly inaccessible.

Hospitals, governments, school systems, and other institutions gather a wealth of information on individuals for purposes other than research.

In the 21st century, these treasures are now often collected and stored digitally. As the White House recently highlighted, accessing this data for research purposes can open up a world of possibilities. Federal, state, and local governments are slowly making strides to facilitate access to this valuable data.

When handled properly, with appropriate privacy safeguards and other precautions, this data can be an excellent source of information for use in research and impact evaluation. These treasures can lower the costs of research, create more possibilities for long-term follow-up, and improve the accuracy of study findings.

It is hard to overstate the transformational potential this data can have for researchers seeking to determine what works – and what does not – in social policies relating to the public welfare in areas such as health care, housing, education, and criminal justice.

Large and complex data sets offer a wealth of information that can open doors to new discovery, but navigating the processes for using this data can be a huge challenge.

To help researchers in accessing data, J-PAL North America has developed a new guide that provides practical guidance on how to obtain and use nonpublic administrative data for a randomized evaluation and a catalog of key U.S. data sets with procedures on how to access data based on information provided by the originating agencies.admindata

Author: Quentin Palfrey

Quentin Palfrey is the Executive Director of J-PAL North America, which works to improve the effectiveness of social programs in North America through research, policy outreach, and capacity building. Based at MIT, J-PAL North America seeks to help decision-makers use research evidence in policy decisions and program design and to provide training courses on the value of impact evaluation.

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