SFU-led projects

Transforming data governance at SFU

April 03, 2023

The newly launched Data Central website is a one-stop shop for all things data-related at SFU, ensuring faculty, staff and administration have the resources to find and access high-quality, accurate data to guide decision-making.

From admissions to payroll records to research statistics, SFU generates a mountain of data. But where is that data located? Who governs it? And who makes sure it’s protected and safe?

SFU’s three-person Data Governance Team of Zareen Naqvi, Kristina Harvey and Dave Townsend has been working to formalize how the university community manages and protects institutional data. The team recently launched Data Central – a website that connects staff and faculty to the right resources on data-related topics. This developing tool includes access to institutional data, a business glossary and data dictionary, data reports, and proposed governance models and structures.

The term ‘data governance’ may not be familiar to everyone, but it’s an essential concept that ensures the delivery of high-quality data throughout the university in a secure manner so that faculty, staff and administration can make accurate and sound decisions. 

SFU is at an early stage in its data governance program and champions a non-invasive delivery approach. This means leveraging existing structures and formally recognizing the people already doing data work at SFU, without the need for substantial resources or additional funding or staffing. The program is advancing slowly but steadily given the limitations of the three-person team who still also have to perform their 'day jobs'. But there have been some significant successes such as the formation and active operation of key groups like the the Data Governance Council and the Data Governance Team.

“The generation of data has become easy. But how do we manage it properly? How do we formalize the behaviour of people around the definition, the production, and the usage of data so that we manage risk and improve its quality and usability? These are some of the questions the Data Governance team seeks to answer,” asks Naqvi, Executive Director, Institutional Research and Planning (IRP).

“It’s about educating people on their roles and responsibilities,” notes Harvey, IRP Data Definitions Coordinator. “Data is an asset. If you’re involved with data, it is your job to protect it. There is sensitive and private data – EDI demographic data for example – that only certain people should be able to access based on their role at SFU.”

Harvey, who joined SFU in 2011 and has worked in several departments prior to IRP, says the change management piece – guiding people’s behaviour when working with data - may be the toughest challenge. To support this shift, Harvey has been hard at work developing the Data Central website and creating internal resources accessible through it such as the SFU Business Glossary and Data Dictionary, which establishes a common vocabulary and agreed-upon definitions for each business term and data element.

In 2017-18, under the direction of SFU’s former chief information officer, SFU engaged accounting firm KPMG to help identify issues and pain points around data governance and look at ways the university could improve the quality of its data. 

As a result, an operational policy was developed to outline key governance areas, roles and responsibilities. The Data Governance Council was formed in 2019. However, with the rise of COVID in the spring of 2020, work on data governance slowed as resources were directed to remote education and learning.

In 2022, the Council became active again and began discussing data issues. A consultant was hired to help guide the team’s work and create a roadmap for future efforts. 

In addition to the recently launched website, the team is also working to formalize a data governance operating model, data strategy, guidelines and standards. Additionally, the team is reviewing existing policies to identify gaps that may need to be addressed. 

Naqvi, who has worked at SFU for the past nine years and joined the Data Governance team when it was formally created in late 2021, says developing these formal structures is a challenge for such a small team, particularly as there’s a lack of awareness about how important data governance is.

“We worry about data security breaches, but data governance lapses are more pervasive and equally important,” Naqvi says. “We want people to be aware and do their part on how to use, manage and protect SFU’s data.”