NSPARC, a taxpayer-funded data center, charged $27,750 for public records request

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Courtesy Mississippi State University

NSPARC director and professor Steven Grice

Mississippi State University research center NSPARC, whose founder calls himself “one of the best data scientists in the world,” manages Mississippi’s public jobs database.

But when Mississippi Today requested data for job listings for a six-month period, the center said the request would take 200 hours to fill. It sent a cost estimate Thursday of $27,750 — $138.75 per hour — and refused to further discuss the request Friday.

“Dropping a fee estimate like that and not providing context is not a helpful way forward for that agency,” said Michael Morisy, CEO of MuckRock, a freedom of information non-profit. “That is a ridiculous fee estimate.”

The state’s workforce initiative, called Mississippi Works, is underpinned by a job search engine managed by the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, the state’s unemployment office, and the National Strategic Planning & Analysis Research Center, known as NSPARC. The agencies launched the mobile app in 2014. Since, the unemployment office has paid NSPARC, a quasi-governmental agency, over $17 million.

State leaders have used the number of job openings — more than 40,000 — to tout economic development and job growth in the state.

For data from Mississippi’s publicly funded jobs database, NSPARC provided a fee estimate of $27,750, $1.78 per job listing.

“In the past, Mississippi has had people looking for jobs. Today, we have more than 40,000 jobs looking for people,” Gov. Phil Bryant tweeted in 2018.

Mississippi Today’s open records request asks for raw data for all job postings — which is available for each posting on the state agency website — to broadly analyze the opportunities of Mississippians.

For example, after interviewing two Dollar General employees, Mississippi Today manually counted the job postings for Dollar General and found they account for 12 percent of the roughly 15,500 job postings that appear on the search engine. Another 10 percent of the postings were positions at McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Domino’s. The department explained that each job posting may include multiple openings. After Mississippi Today’s analysis, the department removed a counter showing the number of postings in a given search and added the number of openings on each posting.

Following that change, a search of the jobs site revealed more than 550 out-of-state farm hand positions, more than 1 percent of all jobs, appear even when a user selects the “statewide” filter. The job postings also date as far back as 2008.

On May 6, Mississippi Today requested raw data for the roughly 15,500 job postings on the state’s job search engine, including the job titles, company name, identification number, experience and education requirements, salary, the number of open positions for each job and other fields available online. Mississippi Today estimates the request encompasses roughly 200,000 pieces of data.

A Microsoft Excel spreadsheet can hold more than 17 million pieces of data and Mississippi Today has received much larger data sets from public agencies in the past.

Mississippi Today asked both NSPARC and the department of employment security what kind of computer program they use to store the jobs data — almost any of which offers the capability to export raw data, or “data dump” — but neither responded.

Morisy said it’s likely that this data has been exported in the past. “Being able to pull data and backup data is really an essential part of maintaining data sets,” he said.

The Mississippi Public Records Act states, “a public body shall provide a copy of the record in the format requested if the public body maintains the record in that format.”

In an email to the unemployment agency, NSPARC director and professor Steven Grice, whose salary is $152,880, said the research center “developed a methodology” to respond to Mississippi Today’s public records request. It includes seven steps: “Review Request Feasibility, Formulate Plan, Extract Information / Pull Information, Format and Review Pulled Information, Submit Pulled Information to Agency for Joint Review, Final Review and Validation, Deliver Final Information to Agency.”

The cost estimate resembles a scope of work one might find in a government contract, but, “this is not a special task they are being asked to do or new work,” Morisy said.

“This is them being asked to comply with the law.”

NSPARC’s Communication Manager Laura McPhail, who earns a $93,704 salary, has refused to respond to several emailed questions and interview requests from Mississippi Today. On Friday by email, McPhail directed Mississippi Today to contact Mississippi State University spokesperson Sid Salter, who “is out of the country until the second week of June.”

Mississippi Department of Employment Security Director of Communications Dianne Bell did not respond Friday to questions about the job database software or how much money the agency spent on developing the tool.

NSPARC’s former director, sociology professor Mimmo Parisi, was recently appointed by the Italian government to run the nation’s public unemployment office.

Though Mississippi State University said Parisi began unpaid leave in March and, according to the school has no “official university duties,” while in Italy, his name remains on published NSPARC materials, including the April “Economy Scorecard.” He also maintains his position as chair of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council of Mississippi, according to materials from the council’s April 25 meeting.