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Applied research in action: understanding the data needs of settlement organizations in Canada

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When Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) approached Open North a few months ago to conduct an assessment of their open data strategy, we were thrilled to say the least. Indeed, the timing could not have been better for such a research project.

With the Trudeau government’s promise to welcome thousands of Syrian refugees in a few short months, the various stakeholders tasked with providing programs and services to these newcomers needed to be able to rely on real, up-to-date data. Once the mad rush began calming down, IRCC turned to Open North to get a better idea to pinpoint the successes and challenges of their open data strategy.

For this particular applied research project, we were tasked with conducting a small study to better understand the data needs of settlement stakeholders who work across the country supporting newcomers and refugees, and to inform ongoing efforts to unlock the potential applications of open data in this area. We took both a qualitative and quantitative approach.

We began by designing a 48-question data user questionnaire, which we sent out to a list (provided by the IRCC) of 15 different stakeholders that are involved in the settlement and socioeconomic integration of newcomers and refugees across Canada. The questionnaire covered a variety of topics, including the importance of data for these organizations, their familiarity with the government’s open data portal and open data principles in general, as well as data availability issues, among many others. Of the list of 15 stakeholders, 8 completed surveys were collected, including two submissions by different individuals from the same organization.

In order to delve deeper into the survey responses, we then followed up with one-hour discussion groups with the stakeholders. This allowed us to highlight the key recommendations for IRCC from the perspective of data users.

One thing that became very clear from the get-go is how important data is for the stakeholder community in order to carry out their mission and work. Datasets about permanent residents, citizenship applications, temporary foreign workers, unemployment rates by region, are all examples of data used to feed their work.

Every respondent surveyed, which included the likes of Tourism HR Canada, the non-profit MOSAIC, as well as the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, described how they have staff dedicated to collecting, assembling and analyzing data. As they explained, raw data is essentially the foundation of any research on immigration. It gives them an insight into what’s actually going on on the ground, and allows them to understand the trends and gaps in services available to refugees and newcomers. Data also directs strategic decision-making in the development of policies and programs.

However, sometimes gathering all the necessary information can be time-consuming and complex. It became evident early on in the study that stakeholders need to use a variety of data sources from different levels of government or even third parties in order to gain a clearer picture of what’s going on. For example, while the IRCC does indeed have a vast catalogue of useful data, stakeholders find it sometimes difficult to break down the data geographically, which inevitably leads them to search for provincial or municipal data sources.

Open data initiatives are a collaborative process that requires adopting an inclusive approach and fostering an open dialogue with stakeholders, as the IRCC has done in this case. It is therefore imperative that we don’t limit ourselves to a supply and demand model. Just because data is being supplied doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right data or the most relevant for stakeholders. Remember, context is everything. It’s essential to understand first and foremost not only which data is being used by stakeholders, why it’s being used, and how, but also to understand how data users are also data producers in this process.

And it’s also about viewing data as complementary. The goal is for the IRCC to share information not only with the organizations that it funds directly, but with other levels of governments and private data producers as well (think universities, think-tanks, and non-profits), in order to break down informational silos.

These are but some of the issues and recommendations covered in our report. I highly encourage you to go read the rest of our study here.

IRCC’s efforts obviously do not end with one report. After all, the data needs of IRCC stakeholders have a direct impact on the successful integration of newcomers and refugees into Canadian society. In fact, our colleagues over at Powered by Data also recently conducted a qualitative study with leaders from settlement service providers, which will be available soon. Interested readers should keep a look out for that too.

In this sense, Open North’s report is one part of a long journey in introducing stakeholders to the government’s data ecosystem. The Canadian government has come a long way in developing its open data portal and promoting open data directives throughout its various departments, like IRCC.

However, implementing open data initiatives is an incremental process that not only requires a major cultural shift internally, but constant meaningful engagement of the community stakeholders, who operate in the social sector, the business world, academia, etc., and who actually deliver services as well. With this comes a growing need to connect data users with data producers.

It’s in this role of intermediary and guide that Open North has developed a wealth of expertise over the years. With our extensive experience researching open data standards and best practices, we have developed standardized methodologies for assessing open data initiatives in various situations. Most recently, we launched Open Cities Strategies, which offers a vast list of services to help Canadian cities succeed in planning and implementing their open data programs (click here for more info).

If you wish to learn more about our IRCC report or discuss how Open North can help you get your open data initiative on track, don’t hesitate to send me an email at jeannoe@opennorth.ca or to give me a call at +1 438-398-9338.

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