Statistics Finland Developing Remote Access System for Statistical Data
Helena Laaksonen | Photo by: Helena Laaksonen
For some time now, Finnish researchers have been longing for a possibility to remotely access statistical data. In some European countries, there is already an equivalent system in operation. In spring 2008, Statistics Finland's Research Laboratory of enterprise data initiated a project, which has focused on preparing and testing remote access to enterprise data. About twenty researchers from central economic research institutes have acted as testers.
The Research Laboratory's project also includes enterprise data which have earlier been possible to access only in Statistics Finland's premises because of data protection issues. "This has caused problems from the viewpoint of regional equality", says Jouko Verho who has worked as the project manager.
Remote access offers a solution to this problem, although the pilot users are still geographically near Statistics Finland. Researchers of the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy, the Labour Institute for Economic Research, the Pellervo Economic Research Institute, and the Government Institute for Economic Research have tested the system. According to Verho, the preliminary feedback has been positive.
Learning from Denmark and the Netherlands
The remote access systems in Denmark and the Netherlands have served as examples for the technical implementation of the Research Laboratory's system. Differences in the context are caused for instance by differences in the national legislation.
Remote access to the data is allowed only from a secure location. Users are located based on the research institutes' IP addresses. In addition, they have to install VPN software, which allows a secure login to the system.
The resources acquired through FinELib are available for the customers of each organisation. For example, the resources are licensed for the use of researchers, teachers and students in universities. They are usually freely available via the organisations' Intranet and most of them can also be remotely accessed for example from the customers' home computers. In public libraries, the resources can usually be accessed in the library premises, but some libraries offer their customers a remote access service as well.
The login system has caused problems at the pilot stage, and therefore it will be replaced by a more functional solution. "There are several alternatives available. At the moment, the best solution is SMS identification. In SMS identification, the user receives a code in his/her mobile phone, and enters it in the system in addition to the normal user id and password", says Verho.
Pre-check of Printed Data
The data are located on the same separate Statistics Finland's server on which the analyses are also performed. The researchers have access to their own "desktop" and a directory in which the documents are stored. They can work like on their own computer and they have access to the most common statistical software in Windows environment. However, they cannot transfer anything out of the system without pre-check. "At the pilot stage, the administrator checks the transferred data manually, but part of the process will be automated when the number of remote users will be bigger. Denmark and the Netherlands have a random check method, in which some of the checks can be performed randomly. Some data can also be automatically pre-checked, for instance file format and size", says Verho.
The remote access is based on a mutual agreement between Statistics Finland and the client organisation. In addition, research projects need an access permission. After that, they will receive a project id, which the researchers will enter in addition to their own passwords when logging in to the system.
Remote Access Possible Also with Universities
The aim is to make the system a permanent service and to include other central datasets from the Statistics Finland. Remote access agreements could also be made with universities. The continuation of the remote access system and the expansion of both the available data and the number of users will require quite an amount of additional funding.
The remote access would be liable to charge, unlike in Sweden. On the other hand, the access permission would most likely be much cheaper than now. It is difficult to determine the right and fair price according to Verho. Most likely, the access fee will be based on the costs arising from access permission decisions, organisation-specific sign-up procedures, and from the months of use. The number of checked analyses would also partly affect the fee. "A completely free-of-charge system would surely be burdened. If checking the results were liable to charge, there would be no unnecessary checks", Verho believes. The researchers would only submit the results that will be included in their research for checking, and there would be no intermediate checks.
The remote access project ended at the end of October. It has been funded by Statistics Finland.
» Statistics Finland's Research Laboratory of enterprise data