Major renewal of data collection at Statistics Netherlands

Step by step, Statistics Netherlands (CBS) is introducing a new process chain for data collection with the accompanying IT landscape. Data is of crucial importance in making high quality statistics. CBS needs large-scale innovation to ensure its business continuity in this respect, says Astrid Boeijen, who leads the project. ‘It also means flexibility and user-friendliness for our survey respondents are greatly enhanced. The innovation takes place under the banner of the major CBS-wide renewal programme, Phoenix.’

Digital information becoming the norm

The present IT landscape at CBS for collection of data is extremely complex, explains Boeijen, who is managing director of Data collection at CBS and also chairs the Phoenix programme steering committee. ‘Over the past twenty years – the time period in which the present IT infrastructure was built –we have been adapting to many social and technological developments. The digitalisation of society has had a great impact on the way in which CBS collects data. There is more and more digital information available, and there are many more opportunities for digital collection of data now.
With a view to reducing the response burden for citizens and companies when collecting the data for our research, we want to keep requests for external information to a minimum. The wide availability of data offers good opportunities to do so. Additionally, the internet has of course grown explosively. Twenty years ago, CBS did not have internet surveys. Now we often start our observations with an internet survey and only when this is not enough do we switch to personal interviews, for example.’

Complexity

As Ms. Boeijen points out, CBS has continuously picked up on these new developments by making smaller and larger adjustments to its systems. ‘As a consequence, the existing IT landscape at CBS is less well-organised, plus a lot of work is being done manually. This has greatly increased the risk of errors and malfuctions. And over the last couple of years, the age of our systems has started to affect us more and more. It means we are inevitably running higher continuity risks. As the main cause for these issues is the large complexity of the existing landscape, major maintenance is no longer an option. This is why we started up Phoenix at the end of 2014, making a conscious choice for a ‘greenfield’ approach.’

Flexible modular application landscape

According to Boeijen, the choice was made for a robust and future-proof application landscape in which all observation channels – varying from external sources such as the Dutch tax authorities to face-to-face interviews, telephone surveys and the internet – come together. ‘The accent is on digital applications, for example the use of data from external sources and online questionnaires. We have checked whether it was possible to forego personal and telephone interviewing altogether, but as it turned out, this would not be feasible in the next ten years. CBS therefore made the decision in March of this year to build a functionality for personal and telephone interviewing into the Phoenix landscape. Development of the new logistics is focused on the idea of plug-and-play, meaning it will be easy to add new observation channels and remove old ones in due course. This provides us with the flexibility to continually pick up on new developments while the logistics esngine can just keep running. Thus we will always have an updated system and we are avoiding another full replacement of the system in ten years’ time.’

Renewal of data collection

So far, the Phoenix project has been focused on the design of a new process and accompanying systems. ‘Now that the scope is clear and the first products are being delivered, it is time for the next phase. In that phase we will put emphasis on the implementation and the changes it involves. Over the next few years, observations for all CBS research will be transferred to the new application landscape. As for the changes, they are affecting the entire CBS organisation. Given the scale and impact of these changes Phoenix will be managed by a programme steering committee with representatives from all CBS directorates.’

Advantages

The new application landscape offers several advantages to CBS survey participants. ‘In the future we will be able to enroll all contemporary devices, from smartphones to tablets. The look-and-feel of our surveys will be more attractive. We expect this to create a positive impact on the willingness to participate.’ The use of Blaise greatly contributes to these positive changes. Blaise is a survey questionnaire application which has been developed by CBS over the past 30 years. It is used by a large number of statistical agencies around the world. The latest version of this system offers a wide range of new possibilities, for digitale questionnaires in particular. ‘By far the highest achievement for CBS is that with the new landscape, our business continuity when it comes to observations is guaranteed in the future as well. On top of this, speed and efficiency will be increased; a lot of processes which are still being carried out manually will become automated in the Phoenix landscape. This also means fewer checks will be necessary.’

Milestone

Posing an extra challenge for Phoenix according to Boeijen is that during the overhaul, work needs to continue as usual. ‘While the innovations are taking place step by step, any disruption to the existing research programmes must be kept to a minimum. Another challenge is to make the programme as lean and mean in design as possible, but at the same time continue safeguarding the quality of our observations and with them, the statistics. We are very mindful of this as well.’ Not long ago, Boeijen and her colleagues celebrated a first milestone: the transition of several components of the Health survey to the new application landscape, making the first part of Phoenix going live a reality.