25th anniversary Centerdata: Interview with Arie Kapteyn and Marcel Das
Centerdata was launched twenty-five years ago. Since 1997, this independent non-profit research institute, established on the Tilburg University campus, has provided input for answers to research questions in the field of the Humanities and Social Sciences. There is a strong connection between Centerdata and Tilburg University, since Centerdata was founded by Professor Arie Kapteyn, who used to work at the Tilburg School of Economics and Management, where he initiated CentER as well. The close collaboration between Centerdata and Tilburg University continues to this day. Since 2000, Marcel Das has been at its helm. Time for an interview with Arie Kapteyn and Marcel Das on Centerdata then and now.
What was the reason you set up Centerdata 25 years ago?
Arie: “Driven by necessity, really. I had founded CentER in 1988 and a little later we received a large grant from the VSB Fund Foundation, a charity organization that supports cultural and social initiatives, to conduct a longitudinal study on savings. Our data were collected by the Telepanel Foundation, a research institute affiliated with the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA), which, at the time, had developed a revolutionary way of collecting data by placing modems in people's homes and then sending them a questionnaire every week. They had to fill out and return the questionnaire via borrowed equipment.
The Telepanel wasn’t doing well financially and at one point, we were told that they were going to quit. Since that would have jeopardized our data collection, I proposed to the UvA to take over the Telepanel. CentER’s managing director Marie-Louise Kemperman and I negotiated the take-over with the UvA, Roel in ’t Veld acting as the intermediary. We ultimately agreed on an offer to the amount of NFL 350,000, if I remember correctly. Later I heard that the UvA would have given us the Telepanel for free, just to be rid of it. But I’ve never regretted the purchase.”
How do you look back on those early days?
Arie: “I found them challenging. The technical infrastructure was hard to maintain; not all of our staff were equally good at it, and we had no clients. Bas Weerman (who is now working for me in Los Angeles) radically improved that technical infrastructure. At that time, the infractructure was not very stable, so the servers had a tendency to crash. Bas would drive from Baarle-Nassau at 2 o’clock at night to reboot the whole thing. He quickly changed that so he could do it from home. We were gradually able to attract more expertise and managed to build a new client base by providing good work. At the end of 2000 I left for the United States. Marcel Das took over from me, and very successfully so.”
Can you spot some differences between Centerdata then and now?
Arie: “Then an amateurish start-up, now a professional organization.”
Marcel: “In the initial period, Centerdata was a small and relatively little known institute with approximately ten employees. Now we are working on a large number of national and international projects with a team of fifty colleagues. And we enjoy a good reputation. In addition, the collaboration with Tilburg University has become much wider. Centerdata emerged from TiSEM, with which we continue to work closely together. But now we also collaborate with the Schools of Humanities and Data Science, of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and of Law. Finally, Centerdata is now much more than just a data collection institute. Among other things, we develop software, conduct behavioral experiments and analyze data with advanced (data science) techniques.”
What has changed with respect to the research methods used?
Marcel: “When I started, in September 2000, Centerdata had just switched to data collection through the internet. Not a lot has changed in this respect, but the opportunities offered by the internet have increased enormously. In addition, we have experimented a lot with new data collection methods, for instance, collecting GPS data via smartphone, using apps to monitor how time is spent, and collecting health data via advanced portable devices. We would like to continue this work.”
Can you name a few studies that really stuck out to you?
Marcel: “One study that I will always remember was CentER’s study into savings, currently called the DNB Household Survey. As Arie pointed out, this study is in fact Centerdata’s very raison d’être. Arie Kapteyn started it up in 1993 and in 1997 it was continued via Centerdata. Data on the financial behavior of Dutch households are still being collected. In 2021, we conducted the survey for the 29th time. This makes the DNB Household Survey one of the longest-running data series in the Netherlands. A great deal of academic research has been published in scientific journals based on these data.
And of course the LISS panel. This panel was initiated by Centerdata in 2007 as an open data infrastructure. Data on a wide variety of subjects is freely available for academic research. The registered users include all of the Dutch universities; more than a hundred institutions worldwide use the data collected. And not merely for scientific research: the data are also available for policy evaluation. For example, the data have been used to give shape to the future Dutch pension system and to study the impact of labor market changes on the division of tasks in the Dutch job market.”
What do you think the future looks like for Centerdata?
Arie: “Institutes like Centerdata continue to be thin on the ground anywhere in the world. The CentERpanel is the oldest so-called probability-based internet panel in the world. In the US, there are now five that are organized on a similar basis, two of which were set up by me. Centerdata is still at the frontier of scientific innovation. For scientific developments in the field of empirical social science, tools such as those developed and being developed by Centerdata are essential and will remain so for a long time to come.”
Marcel: “It has a bright future! There is so much to discover. And so many new opportunities present themselves to collect and analyze data in new advanced ways. Structural and wide-ranging collaboration with all Tilburg University’s Schools is a major advantage, both for Centerdata and for the university. And that’s what we will continue to foster!”