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Michael Kottelenberg

Ph.D candidate, Economics

Mike Kottelenberg

Mike Kottelenberg

Dr Steven Lehrer

Supervisor, Dr Steven Lehrer

Michael Kottelenberg (Economics) goes into Research Data Centre 'vault' for sensitive microdata in award-winning project on subsidized childcare."

by Sharday Mosurinjohn, August 2014

When Economics PhD candidate Michael Kottelenberg was researching his award-winning paper, public use data wasn’t enough to answer his question—namely, when a $5-a-day daycare program was implemented in Québec, what happened to families that used it? He and co-author (also his supervisor) Dr. Steven Lehrer had to leave all forms of electronic communication or recording—even iPods—behind and go into the highly secure Queen’s Data Research Centre (QRDC).

TheQDRC is one of 26 centres across Canada that holds a range of data sets ranging in sensitivity. QRDC Academic Director and Data Librarian Jeff Moon explains that secure microdata files have identifying variables removed, but retain enough detail that unique individuals could be identified. “This means you could identify unique individuals, if you were to ask a question like: ‘where are all the left-handed dyslexic bagpipe playing librarians at Queen’s?’” he offers, with plenty of conspicuously right-handed gestures and assurances that this example is purely hypothetical.

To access secure microdata, researchers like Michael have to prove that they can’t complete their project with Public Use Microdata Files (PUMFs) (Access to PUMFS at Queen's is available through the Data Services using the ODESI data portal.) Then, they must actually apply to become “deemed Statistics Canada employees,” which means they can be prosecuted under the Statistics Act if they misused the data. “They’re read the riot act when they come in,” says Moon. “There has never been a breach of security but the point is never. The trust of the Canadian people is Stats Can’s bread and butter. A breach of privacy could cause response rates to Stats Can surveys to plummet.”

Kottelenberg’s project, which uses data on maternal employment, childcare use, child behavioural development, and cognitive development started in his MA and continued through to his PhD. His first project replicated a study which found that children in the $5/day daycare program “are worse off. Their health is worse, their development and behaviour is worse, and the parents are less consistent so there are worse overall parenting outcomes, too.” Kottelenberg wanted to add more data to the initial analysis to see if the effects found earlier would carry through. It turns out that “yes, they’re very stable.”

Now there are other questions Kottelenberg and Lehrer want to ask. Was it the effect of childcare? Maternal employment? In other words, are child development outcomes about bad care or lack of parents’ care, specifically? Research so far shows that individuals who switched into childcare because of the cheaper policy are the ones that did worse. It could be that 5 dollars doesn’t buy much in terms of childcare, or that families having to cut back are under stress, overall. It could also be that children of different ability respond to childcare differently. “Children of high ability aren’t affected. Though the sample is restricted to two-parent families, this is still counterintuitive as it should be the hardest up kids that universal childcare benefits.”

Another part of Kottelenberg’s research has been trying to establish what age is the best time to start sending kids to daycare on a larger scale. “Early ages do much worse as a result of this policy,” his research suggests. “But the Québec family policy is amazing in terms of supporting women to work, and this can be viewed as a really positive part of this policy.”

Kottelenberg, who himself has a one-year-old daughter, says that spending long days isolated in the windowless Stauffer basement was hard at times, but he is “really grateful for the access to Stats Can data at Queen’s rather than having to make trips to Ottawa” where its central files are located. Not only does he enjoy having local access to these data at Queen’s, but he has benefitted from the help of other QRDC staff, Bin Hu and Casey Warman, throughout the process of writing code to clean and analyze his data. “I’ve written a thesis worth of code, which I would do at home and then come in  and run.  There is a lot of transfer and back and forth which the QRDC makes possible.  In Ottawa, you can’t run your code yourself.,” meaning that it’s a longer process and riddled with the potential for more errors. 

For his part, Moon is “thrilled” for Michael and Steven’s win and how it highlights the kind of research that can take place in the QRDC. He remembers when data analysis was much more of an aerobic exercise, running magnetic tapes back and forth to Dupuis Hall, fetching print output, and rerunning code. “And that was only for the public files!” he exclaims. Thanks to technological advances improving storage, access, and manipulability, data management has come a long way.

This Fall Kottelenberg will be going into his “job market year,” with the goal of finishing his dissertation next July. Originally from Brampton, Kottelenberg notes that there is a job market for economics. He’d be happy doing policy work for the government, but “I’d like to stay in academia,” says Kottelenberg. “I love looking at what I’m looking at, and I love to teach.” This past winter he taught econometrics to undergraduates, but he has also done everything from running a day camp, tutoring at Oxford Learning Centres for a year, tutoring high school, university, and Masters of Public Administration students,TAing for a multimedia courses, and teaching software at McMaster.

If you’re curious about what the data says about childcare in Canada, check out the paper that won the John Vanderkamp Prize for the best article in Canadian Public Policy at the 48th annual Conference of the Canadian Economics Association (CEA): "New Evidence on the Impacts of Access to and Attending Universal Child-Care in Canada" DOI 10.3138/CPP.39.2.26, 3 Issue, Volume 39, Number 2/June 2013.