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Diving into data

Microdata research centre celebrates fifth anniversary at Memorial


By Jeff Green

A unique research facility housing in-depth Statistics Canada data is celebrating its fifth anniversary at Memorial.

The Research Data Centre (RDC) is part of a national network that provides researchers access to detailed information in a secure setting.

‘Really crucial’

The Memorial site, located in the Queen Elizabeth II Library, is a branch of the New Brunswick Research Data Centre. It’s accessible to researchers and graduate students who have an approved project and security clearance.

Nelson Lau, a master of science student in clinical epidemiology in the Faculty of Medicine, researches how exposure to pollution affects the development of different asthma patterns in children. He says the RDC has been “really crucial” to his research.

“Epidemiological research often requires large samples before we can be confident in what we’re seeing,” he said.

“As a master’s student, it would be impossible for me to go out in person across Canada to gather data on pollution levels and asthma in children. The RDC eliminates this problem – all the data I need and more is gathered and processed by Statistics Canada and is easily accessible right here at Memorial.”

Interdisciplinary research

The centre provides access to detailed microdata, including unaggregated survey data with individual, household or family data, as well as sensitive variables, precise, geographic variables and longitudinal survey results.

According to Dr. Zhiwei Gao, the centre’s academic director and an assistant professor in clinical epidemiology in the Faculty of Medicine, results from research currently being conducted at the centre address everything from public health concerns to studies that have the potential to inform future public policy. Currently, there are more than 150 data sets available.

Dr. Zhiwei Gao is the centre’s current academic director.
Dr. Zhiwei Gao
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

For example, one research team recently determined an association between traffic-related air pollution and childhood asthma by using the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youths.

The same team also examined the risk of persistent asthma associated with childhood body mass index, maternal age at birth and maternal history of asthma.

Dr. Gao says another team used the Aboriginal Peoples Survey to identify risk factors of chronic respiratory diseases in Aboriginal Peoples.

“The centre is important in raising Memorial’s research profile, and is an attraction when recruiting faculty.” — Dr. Zhiwei Gao

And, another group used the Canadian Census and Canadian Community Health Survey to explore housing conditions, then mapped housing stress for seniors, as well as looked at how housing stress correlates with physical, mental and social health of seniors.

Strengthening capacity

Nationwide, there are more than 30 centres and branches.

The facilities are part of an initiative led by Statistics Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research CouncilCanadian Institutes of Health Research , and Canada Foundation for Innovation  to help strengthen Canada’s social research capacity and to support the policy research community.

“Students and faculty began accessing the Memorial Research Data Centre in the fall of 2013, and the centre officially opened in May of the following year,” Dr. Gao said during a tour of the centre.

Dr. Gao says there are a number of reasons why the Memorial site is important to researchers.

“First and foremost, it enables researchers to access confidential microdata locally as opposed to travelling out of province,” he explained.

“Also, experience in data analysis enables researchers to develop analytical, empirical and conceptual skills that are in demand in the job market. As well, the centre is important in raising Memorial’s research profile, and is an attraction when recruiting faculty. In addition, government officials may use the various datasets available in their aim to design public policy.”

Memorial’s branch is located in room 3017C in the Queen Elizabeth II Library. Specific hours of operation, and more information about the centre, is available online.

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