New Social Science Data Infrastructure for Ontario Libraries

I met with Wendy Watkins at the Carleton University Data Library Carleton University Data Library yesterday. She is one of the founders and current co-chair of DLI and CAPDU (Canadian Association of Public Data Users), a member of the governing council of the International Association of Social Science Information Service and Technology (IASSIST) and a great advocate for data accessibility and whatever else you can think of in relation to data.

Wendy introduced me to a very interesting project that is happening between and among university libraries in Ontario called the Ontario Data Documentation, Extraction Service Infrastructure Initiative (ODESI). ODESI will make discovery, access and integration of social science data from a variety of databases much easier.

Administration of the Project:

Carleton University Data Library in cooperation with the University of Guelph. The portal will be hosted at the Scholar’s Portal at the University of Toronto which makes online journal discovering and access a dream. The project is partially funded by the Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL) and OntarioBuys operated out of the Ontario Ministry of Finance. It is a 3 year project with $1 040 000 in funding.

How it works:

ODESI operates on a distributed data access model, where servers that host data from a variety of organizations will be accessed via Scholars’ Portal. The metadata are written in the DDI standard which produces XML. DDI is the

Data Documentation Initiative [which] is an international effort to establish a standard for technical documentation describing social science data. A membership-based Alliance is developing the DDI specification, which is written in XML.

The standard has been adopted by several international organizations such as IASSIST, Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), Council of European Social Science Data Archives (CESSDA) and several governmental departments including Statistics Canada, Health Canada and HRSDC.


This project will integrate with and is based on the existing and fully operational Council of European Social Science Data Archives (CESSDA), which is cross boundary data initiative. CESSDA

promotes the acquisition, archiving and distribution of electronic data for social science teaching and research in Europe. It encourages the exchange of data and technology and fosters the development of new organisations in sympathy with its aims. It associates and cooperates with other international organisations sharing similar objectives.

The CESSDA Trans-Border Agreement and Constitution are very interesting models of collaboration. CESSDA is the governing body of a group of national European Social Science Data Archives. The CESSDA data portal is accompanied by a multilingual thesaurus, currently 13 nations and 20 organizations are involved and data from thousands of studies are made available to students, faculty and researchers at participating institutions. The portal search mechanism is quite effective although not pretty!

In addition, CESSDA is associated with a series of National Data Archives, Wow! Canada does not have a data archive!


Users would come to the portal, search across the various servers on the metadata fields, access the data. Additionally, users will be provided with some tools to integrate myriad data sets and conduct analyses with the use of statistical tools that are part of the service. For some of the data, basic thematic maps can also be made.

Eventually the discovery tools will be integrated with the journal search tools of the Scholar’s Portal. You will be able to search for data, find the journals that have used that data or vice versa, find the journal and then the data. This will hugely simplify the search and integration process of data analysis. At the moment, any data intensive research endeavour or data based project needs to dedicate 80-95% of the job to find the data from a bunch of different databases, navigating the complex licensing and access regimes, maybe pay a large sum of money, organizing the data in such a way that it is statistically accurate then make those comparisons. Eventually one gets to talk about results!

Data Access:

Both the CESSDA data portal project and ODESI are groundbreaking initiatives that are making data accessible to the research community. These data however will only be available to students, faculty and researchers at participating institutions. Citizens who do not fall into those categories can only search the metadata elements, see what is available but will not get access to the data.


It is promising that a social and physical infrastructure exists to make data discoverable and accessible between and among national and international institutions. What is needed is a massive cultural shift in our social science data creating and managing institutions that would make them amenable to the creation of policies to unlock these same public data assets, some of the private sector data assets (Polls, etc.) and make them freely (as in no cost) available to all citizens.