Canadian database project to sort out census secrets

A national project to understand Canada’s development by digitizing census data has turned researchers across the country into a team of teleworkers.

Led by the University of Ottawa, the Canadian Century Research Infrastructure (CCRI) is using IBM’s DB2 relational database to correlate census records from 1871 onwards. The objective is to track demographic, social, political and cultural changes that led Canada to evolve from a British colony to a player on the world stage.

Once completed, the CCRI’s work will be available in a series of “research data centres” to be used by various universities, said Dr. Chad Gaffield, CCRI’s principal investigator at the U of O. The real goal, however, will be to get information about Canada’s development into public policy debates, he said, so that legislators will be able to make the most evidence-based decisions possible.

“If you had asked over 100 years ago what countries would be included in the G8, no one would have said Canada. There were many other better candidates,” he said. “We don’t have any good explanations for what happened.”

Some of the earliest census records – from 1871 to 1911 – have already been put into the database. So have some of the latter-day records, from about 1971 to the present day. The CCRI is tackling the years in between. This data is being “geo-referenced” through GIS software, Gaffield said, allow the researchers to do spatial analysis as well as analysis of change over time.

“Take the settlement of the west: we can track who came, where did they go, what were their experiences,” Gaffield said. “We’re looking at not just population movement, but economic structure — what kind of jobs were created.”

The CCRI is in many ways an IT project as much as a research project, said Carmen Bauer, the project coordinator. A team in Ottawa works closely with local firms to develop the technology that will help establish the relational databases.

“Much of the work being done by the centres is data entry so far,” Bauer said, taking old paper census manuscripts and putting them into the database manually. The CCRI has created its own custom software for this portion of the work, which Bauer likened to Microsoft’s Access product.

Other schools involved in the CCRI include the universities of Toronto, Victoria, Québec à Trois-Rivières, York University in Toronto and Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Each centre has local coordinators who discuss their progress by phone once a week. The team leaders, meanwhile, do the same thing about once every two months, Bauer said.

To ease the process of setting up these conference calls, the CCRI recently partnered with Ottawa’s Mitel to implement its 3300 IP Communications Platform (ICP), allowing the researchers to reach each other from coast-to-coast through four-digit extensions. Bauer said it has made life a lot easier for the entire team, given that they also frequently check in with outside partners such as IBM (which is assisting with the DB2-related issues) and agencies such as Statistics Canada.

“This is not something we could do sitting here in Ottawa. That just doesn’t work. We need a group across the country,” Gaffield said. While e-mail has been a useful tool for collaboration, he said it has its limitations. “What we also find is talking to people is really necessary. There’s something about immediate voice-to-voice. The thing about having instant conference calls where you can use voice directly, is it complements all these other tools.”

Mitel mobility solutions manager Dave Spence said the University of Ottawa was an early IP adopter. Most organizations tend to adopt its teleworking products and services to minimize the costs associated with hosted conferencing services, but also to empower end users. That meant ensuring they were using regular-looking phones with clearly marked buttons.

“There’s nothing in the IP world that’s different than what we call the TDM world,” he added. “We knew we couldn’t change the playing field all that much. If you can use a telephone at home, you can use this.”

The CCRI is being sponsored by IBM, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the National Archives of Canada, among others. Gaffield said he expects insights from the first few decades of census data to be available by about this time next year.

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