ABSolutely Not

I was chatting last week with Elliott Fan, a new colleague in the SPEAR centre at ANU, who asked about how he should go about getting access to the microdata from the Australian Labour Force Survey. When I told him that he couldn’t, and that Australia doesn’t let any researchers see the labour force survey microdata, he laughed out loud. It reminded me of how ridiculous it is that Australia – unlike Canada, the US and UK – bars access to this survey. Nearly as bizarre as the fact that we have one survey that asks about employment (the Labour Force Survey), and an entirely different survey (the Employee Earnings and Hours Survey) that asks about wages.

This isn’t just an issue for those of us in Ivory Towers. The quality of last year’s minimum wage debate could have been much better if more researchers had access to good data. And if we didn’t ban international researchers from access to any ABS data, then when we pay them thousands of dollars to fly here and give keynote speeches at conferences, then their papers might be entitled "The US and Australia: A Comparison on Issue X", rather than "Understanding the US Experience on Issue X". When plenty of researchers around the world are prepared to do free policy research for us, it’s daft to be denying them access to our data.

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8 Responses to ABSolutely Not

  1. Definitely not an ivory tower issue. The citizen commenteriat is only going to grow in size and influence. I have been getting frustrated at the lack of data available to citizenry in order to make any valid judgement or explore issues in greater detail.

  2. Elliott says:

    Another strategy that could further motivate public access to the data is to commercialize the data — sell them to researchers and rip off some of their surplus.

  3. Andrew Leigh says:

    Elliott, if there’s a public good element to research, then the right price to sell them at is the marginal cost – ie. zero.

    Incidentally, a lurker just emailed me to say that the ABS may be starting to open up access to the LFS, with the release (to uni researchers only – Cam, they don’t want you fiddling with the data) of a 2004 LFS sub-sample (PDF).

  4. Elliott says:

    Andrew, if the government efficiency responds to fiscal incentives, charging a positive price could sometimes be very helpful. Taking Taiwan’s authority, you make the payment in the morning, data will be uploaded to a designated ftp server in the afternoon. Charging may play a role in this case.

  5. Ray Marcelo says:

    ABSurd. Perhaps researchers can try an FOI search on the data? Expensive but it may be worth it to show how silly the practice is.

    Ray Marcelo

  6. Andrew, to uni researchers only – Cam, they don’t want you fiddling with the data

    Yeh :/

    When the ASPI started charging for their PDFs (despite being publicly funded) I emailed them asking them to treat me as a journalist and give me the PDFs for free. They didnt bite, as a consequence I dont write about them anymore.

  7. Andrew, I agree this is absurd. Surely it is an issue that the Australian Society of Labour Economists ought to be lobbying hard for? Not only microdata for the Labour Force Survey, but for the Employee Earnings and Hours Survey as well.

  8. Andrew Leigh says:

    Cam, that ASPI story is hilarious. They must be reading the book on “How to Keep Your Thinktank Small and Anonymous” (Chapter 1: Get your high-profile CEO so annoyed he goes to Lowy instead. Chapter 2: Start charging people to read your research.)

    NE, I’ve been banging on about this for the past five years. So yes, someone more persuasive than me should take up the cudgels.

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