Positive developments for Finnish register-based research

In Finland the Act on the amendment of the Statistics Act was approved at the presidential session on May 24, 2013 (link to more information). The act allows the use of full population data for scientific research purposes, and implies that there are no longer limitations for indirect identification of individuals, i.e. better data on geocodes etc. can be handed out. It also allows construction of public use data files from registers and surveys.

The following is a translation of (parts of) a recent comment on the act published on “Akateeminen talousblogi” written by Roope Uusitalo (available at: http://blog.hse-econ.fi/?p=5411):

Yesterday (May 2, 2013) the Parliament approved the Act on the amendment of the Statistics Act. Now only the president’s signature is needed to end a lengthy struggle regarding how statistical data about individuals may be used for scientific research purposes. It is good news for empirical researchers.

The law applies to statistical authorities, i.e. mainly Statistics Finland, and substantially changes the current situation in two respects. First, data can be handed out for scientific research even if individuals can be indirectly identified through them. Names, addresses and social security numbers can still not be disclosed by Statistics Finland, but for instance map coordinates with 250 meter intervals and data associated to such areas could be included in the material that is handed out to researchers. There is also no longer a need to consider whether an individual may be identifiable within a dataset based on e.g. profession and place of residence. Furthermore, the new law does not hinder using data that covers the entire population.

The other significant change is that statistical authorities have a right to build data sets for public use. In contrast to the licensed material that is handed out for scientific research these public use data files must be kept so that individuals or individual companies cannot be identified. In practice however, large samples of data at Statistics Finland, such as the labor force survey and income distribution statistics could be modified in such a way that they could be used freely for instance for educational purposes. An even better prospect would be to build a miniFLEED out of the FLEED employee-employer data linked to Statistics Finland that would include a representative set of companies and their employees over a time period of up to 20 years. However, the law does not require statistical authorities to build such public use datasets, it only makes it possible. So goodwill, negotiations and perhaps some money too are still needed.

The act has not evoked much debate in the Parliament. […]However, the working group that prepared the law last year had long and serious discussions. The result is not perfect – public tax records for instance still become secret at the moment that they enter the servers of Statistics Finland – but from the perspective of research it is good. […]

With increased freedom comes increased responsibility. The license terms and e.g. the obligation to ensure the safety of the data should be taken seriously. Violation of professional secrecy is a criminal offence punishable by law. Implementing the rationale behind the act is an even greater responsibility. The legislator wants to promote the use of data that have been collected for statistical purposes in scientific research and statistical reports on social determinants. Now it is time for Finnish researchers to show what they can do.