September 21, 2016 / 7:52 PM / a year ago

Old equipment hampering Canada statistics agency: former head

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Changes to the data infrastructure at Canada’s main statistical department have put the release dates of major economic reports at risk, the former head of the agency said on Wednesday, days after he stepped down to draw attention to his concerns.

Obsolete equipment and staff that do not always understand Statistics Canada’s operations have led to data processing problems and other technological difficulties, including delays with its website, former chief statistician Wayne Smith said.

In an arrangement under the previous Conservative government, responsibility for StatCan’s informatics infrastructure was transferred to Shared Services Canada, the department that oversees information technology services government-wide.

“When we had full control over our infrastructure and operations, we were able to perform to a very high level and that’s now at risk,” Smith said.

StatCan releases the country’s official economic data on everything from jobs to trade.

Smith said equipment that is not being maintained is causing an increasing number of incidents and problems in data processing.

“When I left, at that point, we did not have the capacity to operate another 12 months with the existing infrastructure,” said Smith, who left last Friday, the second chief statistician to quit in recent years.

“We’re running on extremely high-risk equipment,” he later added.

Statistics Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A senior official for Shared Services told reporters earlier this week that StatCan data is safely stored and that outsiders cannot access it.

Aging servers led to several months where StatCan was not able to process its monthly business surveys, which include retail and wholesale trade, simultaneously but instead had to do them one after another, Smith said.

“The consequence is a major loss of time, our delivery dates are put at risk and the data quality is put at risk,” he said.

Processing delays cut down the time StatCan has to review the data, Smith said, though he stressed that figures released to date are sound.

“If we have to miss a release date or push it, we’ll do that before we’ll release data that we have any concerns about.”

Economic release dates are typically set about a year in advance and are followed closely by financial markets and investors.

Economists have sometimes questioned the veracity of StatCan’s volatile monthly employment numbers. The agency withdrew a jobs report in 2014, citing a flaw in the way the figures had been processed.

Reporting by Leah Schnurr; Editing by Alan Crosby

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