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October 8, 2001

Roper Center's International Scope
Broadening Under New Director

Broadening its international scope and technical progress are items high on the agenda for the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research under its new executive director.

"We're making some major technical changes and are working hard to have all of our data available through the Worldwide Web," says Richard C. Rockwell, now at the helm of the University's well respected archival polling data organization.

The technical changes involve improving the accessibility of data on the center's electronic servers so that clients can search the archives interactively, obtain data over the Web, and eventually do interactive analysis on-line without first having to obtain a copy of the poll.

The center, on the fourth floor of Monteith Building, is well positioned in cyberspace to facilitate the flow of information to its users.

"We are completely computerized," says Rockwell. "We have a standard format on the Web for electronic dissemination of data and we're also improving the ability to search our holdings on the Web using a more powerful search engine."

Some information about the data holdings is still made available via paper documentation, however. "As long as we can preserve the paper, we'll hold onto the documentation," says Rockwell, who also wears the hats of president of the center, executive director for the Institute for Social Inquiry, and professor of sociology.

The center was founded in 1947 at Williams College in Massachusetts, and relocated to UConn in the 1970s. It has three major groups of users: academic researchers; public opinion pollsters; and journalists.

The center's longevity is one of its strengths, says Rockwell. "It's possible to look at a series of questions on the same topic that has been asked for more than six decades to the American public and build a time series that shows how social changes occur."

The topics range from racial attitudes to opinions as to the greatest problem facing the nation. Journalists writing analytical pieces on hot issues frequently tap into the center to get a reading on what the public collectively is thinking.

Rockwell joined UConn in July 2000 from the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, where he was a senior research scientist.

Since his arrival here, he has also been working toward expanding the center's data collection to include some additional polling firms and broaden its international scope.

Rockwell notes that currently about half of the center's collection of surveys comes from outside the United States, with Latin America and Europe accounting for much of the international polling data.

Within the United States, numerous influential media organizations such as CNN, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Roper Starch Worldwide and the Gallup Poll are major contributors of information to the center.

"We've actually had organizations come to us in order to obtain their own data because we keep it in such good order," says Rockwell.

He says the center has developed a new partnership with data archive organizations in Latin America, as well as with a European data organization called The Council of European Social Science Data Archives.

"There's a great opportunity in Latin America and that's where we're looking to do the most in collecting international data," says Rockwell. "Many Latin American countries went through painful social and economic changes. We're particularly interested in the process of democratization and economic liberalization as it occurred in Latin America in the 1980s.

"We have a real chance of obtaining a strong collection from Latin America through our partnership," he adds.

Also on the international front, the center is looking to standardize the collection and exchange of data.

"Today, the electronic documentation of a survey is produced in one form at our center, in other forms by other data archives in the United States, and yet other forms in different countries," says Rockwell. "This makes the exchange of data among archives difficult. It's difficult for users because they have to learn distinct ways to use the data. And it makes it difficult for archivists, like ourselves, because we have to maintain various formats of the documentation."

While at the University of Michigan, Rockwell launched a data documentation project to create internationally standardized electronic documentation for social science data.

He has continued the initiative at The Roper Center, and is working closely with the U.S. Bureau of Census, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Statistics Canada, Statistics Netherlands and Health Canada on this international effort.

One of the Center's recent endeavors was the design of a survey with the Kaiser Family Foundation on the role public opinion should play in government and how well people understand and believe the results of polls. The survey went to 1,200 adults nationally, 300 policy leaders, and 300 journalists at major news organizations.

Rockwell says the results showed that "members of the public want to be heard and don't believe they are being heard well. They're not sure polls are the best way for their opinions to be heard."

Policy leaders and journalists on the other hand, he says, put more weight on polls as a way for the public to speak to them.

"Historically," says Rockwell, "many pollsters have seen their work as being important to the functioning of democracy - the voice of the people - and that's something they see their polls contributing significantly to."

The full survey results are available in the July/August issue of the Roper Center's magazine, Public Perspective, and on the Web.

Claudia G. Chamberlain