With little explanation, 'U' abruptly cuts ties with China Data Center

Wednesday, October 3, 2018 - 4:31pm

Users of the China Data Center website last week were shocked to discover the site was no longer available. Instead, the University of Michigan research program was replaced with a brief message explaining the CDC was closed effective immediately. 

The CDC, which collected historical, social and natural science data on China, had been part of the University’s International Institute since 1997 and became a partner in the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research in 2012. The University cited results of an internal review as the reason for the shutdown. CDC users, however, and the center’s director still have questions about the sudden shutdown.

Faculty and staff forwarded all inquiries regarding the CDC to University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen, who stated the decision was made after the center was found to be no longer cost-effective.

“Following the recommendations of a recent internal review of the China Data Center, it has been determined that the University will not undertake remediations that would have been required to continue hosting the CDC,” the statement read.

CDC Director Shuming Bao explained the University sent him notice Sept. 24 that the center would be closed within days. Bao says the University provided vague responses to his inquiries about the internal review and he is still largely unaware of why the University made the sudden move to disaffiliate from the center.

“They did address some concerns but nothing really solid,” Bao said.

Broekhuizen explained the internal review concluded the CDC site would have required the University to make costly repairs and upgrades.

“The review identified serious technology upgrades that were needed, which were not the best use of university resources,” the statement provided read. “As a result, CDC and its related websites and tools will no longer be available from or associated with the University of Michigan or ICPSR.”

However, Bao claimed the CDC receives private funding and the center paid the ICPSR for technical assistance.

“The CDC has been financially on its own resources for years, and CDC paid ICPSR for computing support,” Bao said. “I am not sure how it will cost the ICPSR for those technological upgrades.”

Additionally, Bao said he was unsure as to which technological upgrades the University was referring in the statement. He explained the CDC had a security issue two years ago with a hacker, which was resolved with help from the University’s Information and Technology Services. But since then, the CDC has adopted more intense security measures and not detected any security issues. 

Bao also said the CDC has a significant amount of funds that can be allocated to any technological upgrades the University deems necessary. He still has hope the CDC can reconcile with the University and ICPSR.

“CDC left over $1 million on our account to ICPSR at the time of its closure, which probably should be good enough to fix any tech upgrades if there are some issues there,” Bao said.

For now, the CDC has moved to a separate online domain but remains unaffiliated with the University. While many users are satisfied that they can access the data center through the alternate website, scholars and other academic professionals shared concerns about a data center unlinked to an institution.

Christoph Steinhardt, University of Vienna assistant professor of East Asian studies, has previously used CDC data numerous times for various research projects, but said he is unlikely to utilize the unaffiliated center.

“I would be hesitant to use their data until I know more details on the reasons behind their separation from UMich (the currently released information is cryptic and sounds like something was seriously wrong),” Steinhardt wrote in an email.

Steinhardt explains it is critical for a data center to be affiliated with an accredited university, and until there is more information about the CDC’s new host, he will not be using the center’s data.

“Data from China is more trustworthy if a reputed Western university is behind it,” Steinhardt wrote. “At present, it seems some company from Beijing is running the site. Without more information on the sponsor, I would probably rather look for other sources of data.”