Liberating Data – Wendy Watkins is honoured on Ada Lovelace Day

This year I thought I would honour Wendy Watkins a founder with Ernie Boyko of the Data Liberation Initiative (DLI) in Canada on for Ada Lovelace Day.

Wendy Watkins

In Canada our census data is sold back to us under a cost recovery program initiated by the Brian Mulroney Conservative Government in the early 1980s.  In fact, the Conservatives of that day also tried to Cancel the census but alas the constitution prevented them for doing so and instead they cut Statistics Canada’s budget severely which instituted a very regressive cost recovery practice.  The prices were so high that not only could citizens not afford to use their own data, universities encouraged students to use free US census data since they did not have the resources to pay for Canadian census data.  During those years, Canadians became experts on the US and not on Canada.

It is through the hard work of Wendy Watkins, her collaborators, data & map & research librarians that Canadian universities now have Census data for faculty and students along with associated census geographic files.  I had the good fortune as a student to benefit from the DLI.  Here is an excerpt from one of Wendy’s papers about the history of the DLI:

In April 1993, after receipt of the “Liberation Paper,” the Social Science Federation of Canada (SSFC) hosted a meeting with representatives from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL), the Canadian Association of Public Data Users (CAPDU) and other interested parties to devise a strategy to make Canadian data more readily available to the education and research communities. The meeting resulted in the striking of a smaller working group, under the aegis of the SSFC, to devise a plan that would be acceptable to all parties. Statistics Canada and the DSP [Depository Service Program] played advisory roles in this process. While the initiative has involved government in an advisory role, it is unique in that it was conceived and developed by members of the Canadian research community.

The working group, consisting of researchers, representatives from CARL and CAPDU, as well as members of the SSFC, held a series of meetings over the next months. Advice from both Statistics Canada and the Depository Services Program was invited and found to be invaluable. When the group had formulated a working document to which both Statistics Canada and the DSP agreed, meetings were arranged with senior management in several government departments. The SSFC also met with Ministers and their executive assistants in order to move the proposal forward. Finally, in December 1995, the DLI had received a strong enough informal blessing that the project was deemed to be a go. Letters of agreement were distributed and data began to be released.

More officially, the DLI received approval by the Treasury Board Ministers in a February 1996 decision. It was subsequently included as part of the federal government’s Science and Technology Strategy in March. Most recently, in October 1996, it was officially announced by Dr. John Gerard, Minister of State for Science and Technology at a press conference held in conjunction with National Science and Technology Week and the 30th anniversary of Carleton University’s Data Centre. ( Data Liberation and Academic Freedom, 1996).

The DLI not only fueled Canadian research, it promoted academic freedom, advanced data driven informed decision-making and created a new class of librarian called data librarians and also data centres in libraries.  Data also became artifacts to be collected in libraries, which added a new practice of adding digital material in a catalog along with hard copy books on shelves, the DLI spurred the early adoption of the Internet with the use of basic FTP protocols to transfer data from Statistics Canada and university libraries, and it was the forerunner in the acquisition of digital materials.  The DLI also promoted collaboration between universities and government via a consortium agreement that has been embraced by other organizations such as the Community Social Data Strategy.  Finally, the DLI also accelerated a new type of expertise in data metadata, data catalogs, data citation and data preservation (b).

Today there is a very vibrant DLI community of practice that shares knowledge on a yearly basis at DLI Bootcamps, maintains a repository of training materials, an active blog Data Interests Group for Reference Services and actively exchanges expertise on a DLILIST listserv.

The DLI also politicized access to data very early on and in a sense they began the discourse on data access in Canada.  The cancellation of the 2011 Census being one of the big issues DLI supporters took on.  Further Wendy Watkins and her colleagues participate in key roundtable discussions on access to research data, the preservation of data and develop important infrastructures that disseminate Canadian Data.

Data users and Canadians can thank Wendy for being on the vanguard of open data, open government and data liberation in Canada and for building an incredible cadre of data literate librarians, faculty and students.  Open Data initiatives in Canada can benefit from her work and should recognize Wendy as one of their data access pioneers.  Now we just need to have a census and for those data to be cost free to the public.

Some Watkins’ Papers: