Summary of the Formative Evaluation of Microdata Access: Virtual Data Lab Project

Statistics Canada launched the Virtual Data Lab (VDL) pilot that—in its end state—will provide remote access to detailed, anonymized social and business microdata for research and analysis through a secure cloud-based interface. The pilot was built on the foundation of the research data centres (RDC) and the Canadian Centre for Data Development and Economic Research (CDER).

The evaluation was conducted in accordance with the Treasury Board's Policy on Results (2016) and Statistics Canada's Integrated Risk-based Audit and Evaluation Plan (2019–20 to 2023–24). The main objective of the evaluation was to provide a neutral, evidence-based assessment of the VDL pilot. Three areas were examined:

  • To what extent are existing DataLab assessments comprehensive in considering all users, identifying user needs and aligning project planning with desired outcomes?
  • To what extent has information from completed assessments been integrated into the DataLab project?
  • To what extent have performance measurement and risk assessment frameworks been implemented?

It should be noted that the conducting phase of the evaluation, during which all data for the report were collected, was completed before the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the findings and recommendations do not consider the activities or decisions that took place after March 2020.

The evaluation found that the assessments are comprehensive in their coverage of existing users and in identifying user needs and feedback trends - particularly among federal government and academic users. In addition, collectively the existing assessments are comprehensive in their coverage of all project dimensions and in alignment with the desired outcomes set out in project planning and framework documents. Finally, the assessments have been leveraged to inform strategies and planning.

In terms of performance measurement and risk assessment frameworks, the evaluation found that performance indicators have been articulated and a risk management framework exists.

The evaluation proposed two recommendations:

  • Recommendation 1:
    The Assistant Chief Statistician, Strategic Engagement (Field 4), should ensure that given the level of complexity and dependence on other parts of the agency, contingencies and clearer timeframes be articulated for activities.
  • Recommendation 2:
    The Assistant Chief Statistician, Strategic Engagement (Field 4), should ensure that governance mechanisms are in place that effectively manage horizontal activities in a holistic manner including the clear establishment and understanding of roles and responsibilities.

Update: Since the end of the reference period for the evaluation (March 2020), the VDL Project team has launched and completed a variety of initiatives to meet urgent emerging needs and at the same time accelerate project development. These initiatives included: launching an interim access solution to facilitate COVID-19 research; piloting a cloud environment for a project on opioids with federal partners; working closely with governing bodies to approve frameworks and approaches; and creating and revising key documents such as contracts and agreements to ensure they reflected the VDL framework and governance. The team also updated the project plan to account for progress in several areas including the development and implementation of a corporate client relationship management system and initiated working groups to address issues such as onboarding roles and responsibilities.

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