PolicyWise: Using Data as a Tool for Social Good

Governments are constantly pressed to do more with less. That involves applying budgets with surgical precision for greatest effect. The smartest policymakers know what that means: a data-driven approach to decision making.

In Alberta, Canada, there’s plenty of data available. The government has embraced the concept of secondary use, in which it reuses data to extract new value. One of the most important secondary use areas is in child well-being – and SAS is working with a key innovator in the province to help collate, clean, and convert that data into practical intelligence.

Created in 2003, PolicyWise for Children & Families was previously known as the Alberta Centre for Child and Family Research. PolicyWise changed its name in 2016 to reflect the primary mission statement: the improvement of child, family, and community well‑being based on real-world evidence.

Government decisions are best made using comprehensive sources of evidence. By aggregating data from a variety of sources, PolicyWise provides analysis based on hard numbers that show how children and their families are faring in Alberta. This effort began in earnest in 2007 with its Child and Data Youth Laboratory (CYDL), which is a data-driven project to better understand the effect that policy decisions have on the life trajectories of children.

“All of our processing happens within SAS, from performing simple cross-tabs to quality assessments and checks, and all of our regressions, correlations and statistical testing. It’s all done there.”

Jason Lau
Director of Data Operations at PolicyWise

“SAS has been its partner on that journey,” explains Robyn Blackadar, President and CEO for PolicyWise.

“It was 2007, when the CYDL came to be, that we started to need a really solid analytics software platform to support the work with these huge data sets that we were getting in,” she says.

Jason Lau, Director of Data Operations at PolicyWise, says that the organization has used other solutions for analytics over the years, but that SAS always came out on top. “SAS is simply the standard for enterprise analytics,” he explains. “For analyzing large data sets, it’s always going to be SAS.”

The data that PolicyWise needed for the CYDL spans 20 programs throughout six provincial government ministries: Health, Children’s Services, Community and Social Services, Justice and Solicitor General, Education, and Advanced Education. All of which are subject to Alberta’s strict privacy laws.

The CYDL initiative received anonymized data from these ministries in a flat file format and then feeds them into a SAS environment for analysis. Data spans everything from health visits and the administration of disability services to information on criminal offenses to the attainment of educational qualifications.

“We end up bringing in socioeconomic data from Statistics Canada to connect this data at a neighbourhood level,” explains Lau.

This process gives government an unprecedented view of child well-being in Alberta.

"SAS has been its partner on that journey... It was 2007, when the CYDL came to be, that we started to need a really solid analytics software platform to support the work with these huge data sets that we were getting in.” 

Robyn Blackadar,
President and CEO for PolicyWise.

“Government agencies aren’t always connected, and this data analysis helps to break down the silos,” he says. “It adds to people’s knowledge, and gives it context so that they have a better understanding.” The CYDL works collaboratively with the Government to address policy-relevant needs in a cross‑ministry, integrated manner. Never before has the Government of Alberta had such a broad view of Albertans’ encounters with health and social programs. It gives the Government an opportunity to work collaboratively, based on real-world, context-specific evidence.

After years of partnership with SAS, PolicyWise is moving forward with more projects, such as a data collaboration program called Secondary Analysis to Generate Evidence (SAGE). This would help other researchers, non-profit, community-based organizations, and government departments to liberate, share, and collaborate through data, further extending Alberta’s success with secondary use.

PolicyWise is working closely with government and other stakeholders on using visualization and other knowledge mobilization methods to increase impact. SAS has excelled in helping PolicyWise crunch the numbers. This next step involves making data easily digestible for policymakers.

“It’s about how we convey those insights in terms of knowledge mobilization,” says Lau, explaining that the agency has made use of data visualization already in communicating with government stakeholders. “It would be great to have tools that let us tie everything together.”

PolicyWise’s long history with SAS shows that while other sectors use the power of data analytics for business success, non-profits can apply data as a tool for the greater social good. This strategic use of data is something that can mould policy to the benefit of current and future generations for years to come. When policies are established based on sound intelligence, society as a whole greatly benefits.

The results illustrated in this article are specific to the particular situations, business models, data input, and computing environments described herein. Each SAS customer’s experience is unique based on business and technical variables and all statements must be considered non-typical. Actual savings, results, and performance characteristics will vary depending on individual customer configurations and conditions. SAS does not guarantee or represent that every customer will achieve similar results. The only warranties for SAS products and services are those that are set forth in the express warranty statements in the written agreement for such products and services. Nothing herein should be construed as constituting an additional warranty. Customers have shared their successes with SAS as part of an agreed-upon contractual exchange or project success summarization following a successful implementation of SAS software. Brand and product names are trademarks of their respective companies.


PolicyWise wanted a robust data analytics platform to support its CYDL evidence-based decision support system.



Thanks to SAS, PolicyWise provides context and insights based on real-world data that helps policymakers to make the best decisions concerning child and family well-being in Alberta.

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