The New National Service for Social and Economic Data

Data Set GraphThis year’s British Sociological Association annual conference saw countless presentations from all over the country, many of which were based on secondary data, many of which are preserved and distributed by the UK Data Service.

Established on 1 October 2012, the UK Data Service is a new national data service for social and economic data, structured to support researchers in academia, business, third sector and all levels of government. It provides a unified point of access and support to meet current and future research demands and to help maximise the impact of this research. The service integrates several long-established data services including the Economic and Social Data Service, the Census Programme, and the Secure Data Service, along with other elements of the data service infrastructure provided by the ESRC, such as the Survey Question Bank.

One of the many highlights of the conference was the plenary on the Great British Class Survey, which attracted a big audience and lots of publicity as one of its first research outcomes was a thought-provoking new model of social class for the UK. The presenters announced that the data from this big and innovative online survey will be deposited with the UK Data Service later this year.

This recent example highlights the relevance of the service’s rich and extensive data collection, embracing more than 6,000 datasets at present. The collection covers many well-known large-scale government-funded surveys such as: the Labour Force Survey; the Family Resources Survey; health surveys; major UK longitudinal surveys that follow individuals over time, such as the Understanding Society and British Cohort studies; multi-nation aggregate databanks and survey data from sources including Eurostat, the IMF and the OECD; census data 1971-2011; business microdata, such as the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings; and multi-media qualitative data sources.

The data owners are: national statistical authorities, such as the ONS, National Records of Scotland and others; UK government departments, such as the Home Office, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Department for Work and Pensions; intergovernmental organisations, such as the World Bank and others; research institutes, such as NatCen, the Institute for Social and Economic Research, and the Centre for Longitudinal Studies; and individual researchers with research grants.

ESRC-funded research data must be offered for re-use or archiving with the service within three months of the end of a grant.

The UK Data Service also develops and promotes common standards for data preparation, processing, documentation and preservation to promote data sharing and re-use to help researchers from the project-planning stage onwards.

The Service also acts as a trusted national digital repository. Although currently there are very few ‘open data’ available, this will change in future. The development is very much in line with the increasing national and international commitment to the OECD principles that publicly-funded data should be publicly available. At present, data are offered at different access levels, ranging from ‘restricted distribution’ to ‘secure access’ (controlled access to sensitive or disclosive data through secure settings).

Besides holding the UK’s largest digital collection of digital social research data, there are a number of resources to complement the service including: data visualisation tools, such as Nesstar and Beyond 20/20, workshops and training, and teaching datasets and resources.

The use of real-life data in coursework adds interest and relevance. It also gives the next generation of social scientists the appetite for data and the data analysis skills necessary to make real contributions to future research and society.

Data based on well-known studies or surveys can bring both substantive and methodological topics alive through the evaluation of the strengths and limitations of particular collections. Our teaching datasets have been prepared for ease of use for learners. They are data files of a manageable size. However, they are still real data which can be used to explore substantive topics.

Browsing our 100+ case studies might give readers an idea on how to use our data for teaching and policy-relevant research.

Questions for wider impact of secondary data analysis could include: do alcohol pricing policies really reduce crime and improve health? How effective is the free bus pass policy for seniors? And do compre-hensive schools reduce social mobility?. Case studies showing how data are being used in the classroom range from under-standing the global economy to computer aided analysis of documents and texts.

Additionally, there are webinars available online to help users get started any time of the day, at their convenience. A new series of online videos highlights why data owners, users and advocates value the data and resources we provide. In one of those, Fiona Devine, one of the creators of the Great British Class Survey, stresses the importance of data in helping us understand the society we live in, and the pivotal role the UK Data Service plays in ensuring its availability to the academic community and beyond.

Anyone who wishes to access the data via the UK Data Service needs to be registered with us as, outlined on our website: http://ukdataservice.ac.uk

Former Economic and Social Data Service users do not need to take action as the service has been integrated into the UK Data Service and therefore previous users can just continue using the service. If there are any questions, please contact our help desk at: help@ukdataservice.ac.uk

Written by: Beate Lichtwardt, Senior Access and Support Officer at the UK Data Service 

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British Sociological Association

The British Sociological Association is the national subject association for sociologists in Britain. Founded in 1951, our members are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds including research, teaching, students and practitioners in a variety of fields. Through a range of exclusive membership benefits, specialist study groups and a busy calendar of events, we provide a network of communication to all who are concerned with the promotion and use of sociology and sociological research, helping to improve our understanding of society and social processes.

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