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Generating partially synthetic data to protect confidentiality in survey microdata

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Jack Bowden.

There is often a tension between the needs of researchers to access data for analysis and the needs of data-holding organizations to protect confidentiality. There are various approaches data-holding organizations can apply, such as data swapping or top coding, that alter values in the data so as to protect confidential information. However, these methods typically alter the statistical properties of the data, and thus reduce the utility of the data.

Another approach data-holding organizations could employ is to replace values in the data with multiple imputations to create partially synthetic data sets. As the synthetic data comprise a mix of actual and simulated values, confidentiality risks are mitigated to an extent. The imputations are typically drawn from a statistical model that seeks to capture relationships between all the variables in the data, so the synthetic data should replicate the statistical properties present in the original data. Thus, users of the synthetic data should, in theory, draw similar conclusions to those that would have been obtained from an analysis of the original data.

In this talk, I will review the synthetic data approach to protecting confidentiality, and consider risks associated with this approach. I will also describe an application of this approach to protecting confidentiality in the UK 1991 Sample of Anonymised Records (SARs). The SARs is a 2% sample of the UK census data containing over 1 million records with mainly categorical variables. This makes it challenging to form statistical models for synthesis as well as to decide which values in the data should be synthesized.


Reiter, J.P. (2003). Inference for partially synthetic, public use microdata sets. Survey Methodology 29, 181-188

Reiter, J. P. (2005). Using CART to Generate Partially Synthetic, Public Use Microdata. Journal of Official Statistics 21, 441–462.

This talk is part of the MRC Biostatistics Unit Seminars series.

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