02/07/2016 03:00 EST | Updated 02/07/2017 05:12 EST

Canadian Census Data System Facing Delays, Uncertain Future

The project is designed to make it easier for visitors to the Statistics Canada website to organize, read and play with the data statistical agency collects.

OTTAWA — An $18-million project to make it easier to sort through reams of data from the coming census has been beset by delays and uncertainty that the three-year project will be done on time.

Called the "new dissemination model,'' the project is designed to make it easier for visitors to the Statistics Canada website to organize, read and play with the data statistical agency collects, be it census or jobs data, or anything else the agency measures.

The end idea is to create a more interactive experience online instead of pages of static data tables, and also to simplify and standardize how information is presented.

It was all supposed to be ready in time for February 2017 when Statistics Canada releases its findings from this year's census.

'Number of challenges'

Statistics Canada and Shared Services Canada, the government's central information-technology department that is building the new system, said the project has been delayed, but couldn't say by how long or if it could still be completed on time.

Shared Services Canada said it has faced "a number of challenges'' hosting the new system in its data centres that it is trying to address.

Internal government documents show there was a "final go/no-go'' test on the system in December 2015. Statistics Canada hasn't made a decision on the project following the test, the details of which neither agency would disclose, and is ``currently analyzing the impact of the delay'' to see what the next step will be.

Arguments over project's cost

The project is a microcosm of the problems auditor general Michael Ferguson raised last Tuesday in a critical review of Shared Services Canada. That audit found, among other things, that Shared Services Canada didn't always communicate well with the departments and agencies it serves, leaving some of them in the dark about projects, and confusion over who was responsible for what.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act show that for two years the two agencies have argued over how to split costs for the multi-year project.

Statistics Canada sees the project as an "evolution of a core departmental activity'' because it's in the business of handing out data to Canadians. That would mean Shared Services pays for everything.

Shared Services believes the project is a completely new service, meaning Statistics Canada should pick up the bill.

An October briefing note to the president of Shared Services Canada says a mediator may have to be brought in to settle the disagreement, or Statistics Canada may have to scale back the size of the project.

The project will replace 60 systems with 234 and give Statistics Canada 105 terabytes of memory, compared with the 6.4 terabytes the current system uses. Put another way, the old systems could house about 1.6 million songs; the new system will have enough memory to house about 26.25 million songs. If each is about four minutes in length, that amounts to almost 200 years of non-stop music.

Then there's the cost for the project: $18 million over six years to replace equipment that has an estimated value of $20,000.