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1) AAAS Science: Accessing U.S. data for research just got easier -- New online portal streamlines requests for massive data sets at 16 federal agencies

The U.S. government has just made it easier for social scientists to get their hands on federally collected data they need for research. Starting today, an online portal https://www.researchdatagov.org/ offers one-stop shopping to apply for access to protected data sets maintained by 16 federal agencies. Scientists can search the site to find the data set they want and then, with one click, file an application. The site also allows them to track the status of their request. . . .

A 2018 law aimed at promoting evidence-based policymaking requires federal agencies to make better use of the data they already collect. That includes giving external users greater access to federal data sets on everything from health, labor, and housing statistics to education and demographic trends.

Some of the data are already available to anyone. But more than 1000 data sets are protected because of concerns about national security, intellectual property, and personal privacy, and researchers must be vetted before being granted access. The process was cumbersome: For each data set, researchers had to figure out where to apply for access, fill out an application explaining how the data set would be used and who would be working on it, and then wait for the agency to say yes or no.

An interagency group has spent the past 4 years figuring out how to harmonize and increase the transparency of processes that vary by agency and, in some cases, are dictated by specific legislation. The upshot, unveiled today after a soft launch earlier this year, is called the Standard Application Process (SAP). . . .

Scientists wanting data from multiple agencies, for example, won’t have to re-enter basic information about themselves and their research teams. Reviewers will apply the same criteria regardless of which agency holds the data set, and scientists can monitor the status of their applications. SAP is also expected to shorten the time it takes to complete the reviews and notify scientists. . . .

The White House Office of Management and Budget today issued a 30-page memo to help agencies implement SAP. . . .

2) OMB M-23-04: Establishment of Standard Application Process Requirements on Recognized Statistical Agencies and Units [30 pages]
The Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act (CIPSEA) . . . requires the Director of OMB to establish a standard application process (SAP) that will be adopted by statistical agencies and units through which agencies, the Congressional Budget Office, State, local, Tribal, and territorial governments, researchers, and other individuals, as appropriate, may apply to access confidential data assets accessed or acquired under CIPSEA by a statistical agency or unit for purposes of developing evidence. .  

This memorandum establishes a SAP that fulfills this requirement and that OMB will also use to fulfill related statutory requirements. . . .

Data accessed or acquired by statistical agencies and units is vital for building evidence on conditions, characteristics, and behaviors concerning the whole of, or relevant groups or components within, the economy, society, or the natural environment and on the operations and outcomes of public programs and policies.  This evidence can benefit the stakeholders in the programs, the broader public, and policymakers and program managers at the State, local, Tribal, territorial, and Federal levels. Some evidence may be built upon public versions of data that were initially collected under a confidentiality protection statute, but where disclosure limitation methods have been applied, such as removal of Personally Identifying Information (PII) and aggregation of information, to prevent the risk of disclosing the identities of individuals. However, some evidence-building activities require the use of confidential data, and such uses are to be conducted in a manner that maintains the confidentiality of the data and the public trust.

Statistical agencies have invested in secure ways to provide such access for many years. By contract or through a special agreement, a statistical agency or unit may allow approved individuals (hereinafter “agents”) to perform exclusively statistical activities on an approved project using confidential data, subject to appropriate control, supervision, and agreement to comply with all relevant legal provisions. CIPSEA authorizes data accessed or acquired by a statistical agency or unit to be shared with such agents and subjects such agents to the same fines and penalties for willful and unauthorized disclosures as statistical agency or unit employees and officers. Such arrangements have been used successfully in the past for the purpose of facilitating the generation of evidence. However, the process for an individual to become a designated agent often varies across Federal statistical agencies. Moreover, the trusted status that agents obtain from one agency may not transfer to another agency, requiring the potential duplication of costly and time-consuming clearance processes. The variety of applications and clearance procedures used across the Federal statistical system for confidential data access is a burden that impacts the ability of potential agents to generate evidence that could inform the efficiency of government policies and programs.  Evidence-building opportunities will be enhanced, while maintaining data protections and ensuring appropriate use, by the design and construction of a SAP for access to confidential data.

In 2016, Congress established the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (CEP) to explore how to increase the availability and use of evidence in the Federal Government while protecting privacy and confidentiality. In the September 7, 2017 report on its findings, the CEP provided a series of recommendations in response to their charge. As part of its findings, the CEP highlighted the heterogeneity in application processes for confidential data as an important challenge for those seeking to access confidential data from multiple agencies to build evidence. The CEP further noted that inefficiencies in the confidential data access processes create administrative expenses and burdens on applicants that could impede federally-funded research. Congress sought to address these concerns through the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (Evidence Act), which amended CIPSEA.

CIPSEA requires that each statistical agency or unit establish an identical application process, which includes not just the application form, but also the criteria for determining whether to grant an applicant access to the confidential data asset, timeframes for prompt determinations, an appeals process for adverse determinations, and reporting requirements for full transparency of the process. While the adoption of the SAP is required for statistical agencies and units recognized under CIPSEA, other agencies and organizational units within the Executive Branch are not required to participate but may benefit from the adoption of the SAP to accept applications for access to confidential data assets that they are able to make available for purposes of building evidence, and such participation furthers the Federal Government’s ability to offer a seamless user experience to potential applicants, consistent with CEP’s findings.
This memorandum establishes the SAP to be implemented by statistical agencies and units consistent with other portions of CIPSEA, and provides an avenue by which other agencies and units can voluntarily participate. It provides minimum requirements, such as for approval timeframes. Agencies are encouraged to exceed those requirements whenever possible. For the purposes of this policy, the application process begins with an applicant discovering a confidential data asset for which a participating agency is accepting applications to access for purposes of building evidence and generally ends with either the statistical agency’s or unit’s determination on whether or not to grant access. In the case of an adverse determination, the application process ends with the conclusion of an appeals process if the applicant elects to appeal the determination.

The SAP establishes a standardized process for applying to access available confidential data assets from a statistical agency or unit for evidence-building purposes. The SAP is not applicable to cases where the data user does not or is not seeking to have direct access to confidential data (e.g., the data user is instead seeking public-use data assets, public-use microdata files, or secure web-based query systems that return non-confidential data).  Internal agency projects and processes undertaken with Federal or non-Federal external collaborators—carried out under a contract, interagency agreement, Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), or other miscellaneous agreement that creates an obligation between Federal agencies or with a non-Federal organization (e.g., partnerships invoked through reimbursable, joint statistical project agreements)—also are not required to use the SAP Portal.

Under the SAP, statistical agencies and units remain the stewards of their data assets and are responsible for facilitating approved access consistent with 44 U.S.C. § 3582 and associated regulation and guidance.  As such, this policy does not establish or alter any requirements for a statistical agency or unit to accept applications for access to specific data assets; nor does it establish or alter statistical agency or unit requirements for the type of output (e.g., tabular) that is acceptable within an application; nor does it establish or alter statistical agency or unit requirements for data access or distribution modes for confidential data that agents may use.

The requirements in this memorandum apply to all statistical agencies and units currently recognized under 44 U.S.C. §§ 3561(11) and 3562. At the time of the issuance of this memorandum, there are 16 such statistical agencies and units: . . . Other Executive Branch agencies or units may, at their discretion, and with the concurrence of the Governance Board, utilize the SAP established in this memorandum to accept applications for access to confidential data for purposes of building evidence. . . .
The ICSP [Interagency Council on Statistical Policy] will establish a Governance Board, which will serve as the executive steering committee and operate as a subcommittee of the ICSP, to oversee the SAP and coordinate the statistical agencies and units that are accepting applications through the SAP. The ICSP will develop a charter for the Governance Board, which will include each of the responsibilities articulated in this policy. It will determine the composition and structure of the Governance Board and may update the composition and structure as necessary. As the PMO [SAP Program Management Office] implements the SAP, key decisions, as specified in this policy, require approval by the Governance Board as a representative of OMB and the statistical agencies and units utilizing the SAP. As the SAP is implemented and performance is observed over time, the Governance Board is responsible for identifying opportunities to improve the efficiency of the SAP, including through further standardization. . . .

1 SAP Roles and Responsibilities
2 SAP Data Catalog
3 Common Application Form  
4 Process for Review and Disposition of Applications  
5 Timeframes for Determination  
6 Appeals Processes
7 Progress Tracking, Communication, and Reporting
8 Application Amendments

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