News 18 Jun 2020

Cooperation between Helsinki GSE and Statistics Finland helps the research group in acquiring research data

In March, Finland started to operate under exceptional conditions. In an unexpectedly changed situation, information was needed fast as the basis for decision-making. Finnish society has at its disposal exceptionally large data warehouses with which high-quality research can be made. Fast solutions required by the exceptional circumstances for obtaining data resources for research use were not, however, ready. During winter, attention had rather been paid to delayed delivery of Statistics Finland's research services that produce research data for researchers.

When the exceptional conditions started, the Helsinki GSE (Graduate School of Economics) unit centred on economics at the University of Aalto, Hanken School of Economics and University of Helsinki did not waste any time. Researchers belonging to the research unit contacted Statistics Finland at the end of March to explore about possible cooperation in order to receive speedy data deliveries. VATT Institute for Economic Research also participated in the project by the work input of several researchers. The aim of the researcher group was to establish an economic situation room that would provide up-to-date information to support decision-making on economic policy to ministries and other public authorities during the coronavirus crisis.

Up-to-date information from Finland's public administration's data warehouses was needed in the situation room with a very fast timetable. Researchers were interested in register data held by the Social Insurance Institution of Finland and the Tax Administration, for example. The economic situation room reports on the results of its work from various perspectives weekly. For this reason, data deliveries were needed with a considerably fast timetable. The availability of the data and the ease of their updating prompted the researcher group to turn to Statistics Finland.

“The remote access environment available at Statistics Finland's research services offered a data secure platform for the sharing of data. The discussion on cooperation was opened on Monday at the end of March and already on Thursday, Statistics Finland was able to deliver data to researchers,“ says Aino Tylli, who is in charge of research services at Statistics Finland.  

Exceptional activities under exceptional circumstances

Several experts from Statistics Finland's research services participate in the work of the Helsinki GSE researcher group. Their working days in spring were filled by studying the contents and availability of the data needed by researchers and processing the data so that the data would be in working order. The data are drawn for researchers' use from Statistics Finland's data warehouses or they are obtained from external authorising bodies.  

“Statistics Finland's experts who know the data have supported the success of the project by opening up the contents of Statistics Finland's data warehouses. For example, the new Incomes Register has been made available at record speed for research use, and the use experiences of Helsinki GSE will also benefit other researchers in future,” says Aino Tylli.

Before researchers receive the data into use, Statistics Finland's experts protect them by removing direct identifiers from the data and by replacing unit level identification data (persons and enterprises) with pseudo identifiers. The protection is made so that it is possible to link the data even after this and observation units can be monitored in the data over time. After this, the data are transferred to the remote access system to be used by researchers.

Statistics Finland's many experts in data collection and at statistics departments have contributed to the success of the project by opening up the data content and processing rules and various ways of using Statistics Finland's data warehouses.

Professor Otto Toivanen, who is responsible for the management of the economic situation room, explains that the cooperation has functioned in an exemplary way from the perspective of the researcher group:

“In addition to a reliable and well operating technical platform, we have felt it has worked well how the acquisition and availability of data have been managed at Statistics Finland,” he says.  

Participation in work has taken a lot of working time from Statistics Finland's research services, because several dozens of files are processed weekly for the use of the economic situation room and several hundred result files are checked for data protection. In this situation, it has not been possible to dissolve the job queues of research services as planned, even though the queues may have been shortened already during spring from the situation in winter.  

“We thought, however, that the expertise and help of Statistics Finland's experts are needed at the moment to help solve a socially significant matter,” says Aino Tylli.

In normal circumstances, Statistics Finland will not deliver data to researchers until the data have been used for statistical purposes. When the exceptional circumstances started, separate decisions were taken to depart from the operating principle and data from data warehouses have already been released for researchers in the economic situation room before the data have been used for the compilation of statistics.

The cooperation has also affected Statistics Finland's own data production. The data obtained with the studies of the researcher group have made it possible to publish some statistics with an accelerated schedule in exceptional circumstances.

“Our cooperation will presumably continue until the end of August, but further discussions are ongoing. Despite the high-pressure timetables, everyone involved has considered this to be a very important job and has worked flexibly with a good spirit," says Aino Tylli.  

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