Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 1997

Stats Canada Launches Data Liberation Initiative

Marcel Lauzière
On October 22 last, Jon Gerrard (Secretary of State for Science, Research and Development) held a press conference to officially announce the Data Liberation Initiative (DLI). Also speaking at this event were Richard Van Loon, President of Carleton University, Ivan Fellegi, Chief Statistician (Statistics Canada), John English, a liberal MP, and Chad Gaffield president-elect of the Federation.

Coordinated by the former Social Science Federation, the DLI is a collaborative effort between the federal government, in particular Statistics Canada, and the academic community to provide timely and affordable access to datafiles and databases.

The DLI is the result of several years of consciousness raising, education, lobbying and outright arm twisting. It is also the fruit of exceptional collaboration, team work and determination.

The story begins in January 1991 when Wendy Watkins, coordinator of the Carleton university library data centre, was seconded to Statistics Canada. During her tenure there she realized the extent to which Stats Canada microdata was not being accessed by the academic community, mainly due to prohibitive costs.

Helped by such people as Paul Bernard of the Department of Sociology at the Université de Montréal and Ernie Boyko, of Statistics Canada, Wendy Watkins developed a scheme that she proudly named the Data Liberation Initiative. It had the objective of providing easy and affordable access for universities to this wealth of data.

Soon afterwards, the DLI came to the attention of the Federation through Bruce McFarlane, of the Department of Sociology at Carleton University. The Federation liked the idea from the start and following some discussion decided to make this issue a priority and assume a coordinating role with the objective of securing federal government support.

The first action was to bring together over 20 organizations and several government agencies for a half-day briefing session in the spring of 1993. From that meeting followed the decision to create a task force with the mission to ensure the implementation of the DLI as quickly as possible.

The task force was composed of Charles Beach, Economics, Queen's University (Chair); Wendy Watkins, representing the Canadian Association of Public Data Users; Paul Bernard, Ernie Boyko, and David Holmes of CARL; Bruno Gnassi, Depository Services Programme; and Carol Martin formerly of the SSFC.

Members of the task force worked relentlessly for close to three years. With the proposal in hand and every aspect of the rationale well developed and argued, the Federation and the individual members of the task force set out on a crusade to sell the merits of the initiative and convince decision makers in every corner of Ottawa that this was an idea of which the time had come.

Essentially our arguments were that the DLI would provide researchers with timely and affordable access to Canadian data thus preventing them from having to turn to outdated or foreign data sources. We also emphasized that full access would benefit graduate students who would gain knowledge about Canadian data. Finally, this access would enhance policy research which would in turn inform policy making and public debate.

Our work included meetings over several months with key policy people, numerous letters, and interventions across the country as the federal government undertook its consultations on its Science and Technology Strategy. The DLI quickly gained momentum and support from many quarters. Its implementation was proposed in the NABST report, Healthy, Wealthy and Wise, as well as in the Report of the Task Force on Strengthening the Policy Capacity of the Federal Government. Moreover, the Ottawa based Science Bulletin carried a front page story praising the initiative. Articles were also published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and in University Affairs.

A turning point in this difficult campaign however was Treasury Board's decision to support this initiative and its decision to be the broker in setting up a consortium of government agencies and departments that would share the costs of the DLI. This was announced in February 1995. While we all realized that we were still far from the finishing line, with the mounting fervour for the project and the concrete involvement of Treasury Board, we were beginning to sense that the DLI might just make it.

Within about six months of Treasury Board's decision to help set up this consortium, a number of agencies and departments were coming on side and funding commitments were being made. Statistics Canada alone pledged $100,000 for each of the next five years. This was added to the $25,000 that had been announced by the SSHRC early on in the process. Seven or eight departments and agencies had accepted to fund the initiative.

Given the fund raising success, Statistics Canada was able to inform the General Assembly of the SSFC in December 1995 that the funding target was going to be reached and that they were going ahead with the Initiative. Universities were about to be contacted regarding their participation.

In February 1996, the SSFC was invited to the unveiling of the long awaited Federal Science and Technology Strategy that officially announced the Data Liberation Initiative. It was the crowning of a long and arduous process.

The efforts of the community paid off; the data have been liberated. By Nov. 25, 50 universities were participating in the DLI, allowing academics across the country to access made in Canada data. The hope is that the DLI will serve as the model for the provision of data from other government sources.

For information on the DLI and answers to Frequently Asked Questions, please visit the web at the following address

Marcel Lauzière is the Executive Director of the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada.