Stats Can’t-a-da: Part Deux

I hadn’t planned on commenting on this again but all the craziness around has prompted me to write one more time.   Opponents are suggesting it is a) an invasion of privacy, b) ‘forced’ labour on Canadians, c) a free ride for organizations that should go out and get the data themselves, d) in response to an outpouring of anger from Canadians at forcing them to fill it out.  There are secondary concerns but these are the main four.

As for invasion of privacy, all governments require citizens to provide personal data for a wide variety of uses – it’s all used in confidence – Statistics Canada data is suppressed all the time to ensure that you couldn’t possibly figure out who the person or company is.  And in the end, people can ‘lie’ if they don’t want to share their information.  That’s just the plain truth. 

As for forced labour (mentioned here and elsewhere),  we are forced by government to do lots of things – many against our will.  If this is such an issue pay people $5 to fill it out.

The free ride argument is the worst.  The US Census data is all free – every scrap (at least that I have used and I use it extensively).  The Canadian data – other that some standard tables – is all at a cost when used in a commercial capacity.  I spent (on behalf of my clients) over $5,000 last year on Statistics Canada data. 

As for the outpouring of anger from Canadians, I never heard of it.    And I have never heard of anyone going to jail for not filling the long form out.  I had to fill it out last time and they called me several times to ensure I received it, ask if I needed help, etc.

A major point – raised here by someone – is that if the data becomes voluntarily filled out it cannot be compared to previous years and it won’t necessarily even represent Canada as a whole.  The only way to get a true cross section, is to make it random.

I think this matters.  We need to understand the nuance in the demographics.  All provinces are different.  There are huge ethnic and linguistic differences.  The socio-economics are very different.  We already have a federal government that likes to ram national, inflexible programs onto a group of very diverse provinces.  Wait until we don’t have good data to highlight these differences.  The Census long form is the best set of data on granular aspects of the Canadian population.

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13 Responses to Stats Can’t-a-da: Part Deux

  1. mikel says:

    The one thing I found hilarious was on The Current when they interviewed the conservative MP from Peterborough. He made the claim that asking things like ‘how far to work’ and ‘how many rooms’ a person has is a gross invasion of privacy. Of course the government could simply use Google to find out these things, or it could just ask.

    The other point was his assertion that voluntary responses were as good as polls, which apparantly are completely reliable. Volunteering, he claimed, was every bit as good and reliable and there’s no way that any political organization could possibly use it for their own ends. Why it was interesting was that after this tirade about the wonderfulness of volunteerism, he then went on to emphasize that the main eight questions were STILL going to mandatory. So for some reason there are certain questions that are a gross invasion of your privacy, but some questions are just fine and aren’t.

    However, I should point out that although in the end nobody went to jail, there were several people prosecuted for not filling out the mandatory form. As I said I was part of a political movement that objected to sub contracting out to a weapons manufacturer to gather our data. And there WERE several people who were then prosecuted and fined. In the end the government dropped most of the cases, but there was some heavy handedness involved.

    And again, revenue canada employees were caught sifting through gathered data, so these are not insignificant issues. It’s no surprise that when the tories talk about all the complaints they got, they are careful to omit discussion of Lockheed-Martin, the company paid millions. This was a MASS political movement to object to this company’s involvement, in comparison to probably a very few people who may have complained about doing the census in general. It’s not like the information was of a deeply personal nature, nobody wanted to know people’s favourite sexual position or even favourite type of cereal. They were pretty innocuous questions, and fortunately there has been more ‘anger’ at this move by the tories than there ever was against the census.
    And I also have a pet peeve about the increasing commercialization of statscan data. Is there any organization that represents the ED industry? Perhaps we should start a lobby. The US has REEMS of info available on virtually every aspect of its population’s lives.

  2. I do have trouble with the prosecuting part. Maybe there should be some carrot and not much stick. But I do think this issue of the public interest does matter. When a company (or a think tank or a university) hires a polling firm they are looking – mostly – to confirm their viewpoint. Anyone who thinks these these are completely free of bias are fooling themselves. Even when a private company has a poll done that doesn’t confirm their view, they supress it.

    Statistics Canada acts as a benchmark against the entire private polling industry because, at least in theory, it has no vested interest or bias. If an industry does a survey that shows the workers in that industry earn an average of $75,000 per year, that is fine but it would have to stand up to the Statistics Canada survey showing employment income by industry. There is bound to be some variance but not on an order of magnitude. Without the Stats Canada data, we are going to get more wonky and weird survey findings and we won’t be able to benchmark it against anything.

  3. richard says:

    “And I also have a pet peeve about the increasing commercialization of statscan data.”

    That’s a good point; StatsCan’s data should be free; its a public good and we should be able to access it without paying an arm and a leg. This is a trend right across many fed and prov govts; hiding information from the people who are paying for it. As noted, the US, for all its faults, provides much more info free to the public.

  4. Jon says:

    In 2009, the Inland Revenue Quebec has endorsed 51 of its 10,000 employees for allegedly passing confidential information about taxpayers, according to documents obtained by The Business Press under the Access to Information. Il s’agit d’une hausse de 21% par rapport à l’année précédente, où 42 fonctionnaires de Revenu Québec avaient été sanctionnés. This is an increase of 21% over the previous year, when 42 officials from Revenue Quebec had been punished.

  5. Jon says:

    The British government plans to scrap the census — the modern official population count it has carried for more than 200 years.

    Francis Maude, minister responsible for the census, said the once-a-decade count of everyone in the country is expensive and inaccurate.

    Britain is examining cheaper ways to count people more frequently, using existing public and private databases, including credit-reference agencies.

    He said Britain needed a new way to keep track of the population because the Census is often inaccurate and out of date. About 1.5 million households failed to fill in forms in 2001.

    The information from the 2011 census will not be published until the middle of 2012 and by that time, many of the people whom the Census had counted would have moved or died.

    Maude said it may be possible to more accurately count the population every five years, using cross-referencing databases held by credit check firms, Royal Mail, municipal councils and the government.

    “There is a load of data out there in loads of different places,” he said.

    Read more:

  6. richard says:

    “In 2009, the Inland Revenue Quebec has endorsed 51 of its 10,000 employees for allegedly passing confidential informatio”

    Hmm…..not sure they ‘endorsed’ them for that.

  7. Chris Baker says:

    Re: Statistics Canada data should be free

    Of course, you can go to the StatsCan website and enjoy the copious amounts of data that is provided for free. However, StatsCan is a commercial crown corporation. As such, it does not get any money from the Federal Budget – it has to earn its keep every day. Therefore, those who want to have more expert use of the data, such as David’s clients, have to pay. And do you know what? It’s good value for money. (Really.)

    Further, why should I, as a taxpayer, subsidize the data usage needs of other organizations, whether they are advocacy groups, private sector organizations or other governments? I shouldn’t.

    Here is an example of the best of both worlds. The public – you and I – have access to copious amounts of aggregated data about our communities, our provinces and our country AT NO CHARGE. If I want StatsCan to produce a custom data set, their fees are reasonable.

    However, if the Conservatives decide to abandon the mandatory long form, data quality will suffer and that is something we should not be ready to sacrifice. As well, it strikes at the heart of a fair and equitable business model that makes Canada the envy of every other country in the World as fair as data capture, data quality and citizen confidentiality is concerns.

    Chris Baker

  8. Folks, remember my rule that I don’t post comments that containing personal insults. If the person with that comment wants to resubmit without insulting a specific person, I will post it – the underlying point is valid.

  9. mikel says:

    To the point above, as a taxpayer I shouldn’t HAVE to subsidize ANYTHING that doesn’t contribute to me personally-but I do and don’t have too many complaints. There is a real phobia in canada about ‘special interest groups’ as though some organization that provides emergency shelter for homeless people is some kind of malevolent force out to bilk the populace.

    I’m none of those, yet there have often been serious issues that have arisen and the only way to find out the information was, you guessed it, to pay Statscan for it. Canada is already NOT the ‘envy of the world’ when it comes to transparancy and media vigilance-they may run a fairly tight ship and no doubt many a country’s leadership are envious of the way that the canadian government can keep such a tight noose over canadians without having to expend much effort. However, as far as government secrecy and media monopolies go, Canada is a joke even to americans.

    I think the point is arguing about funding statscan, and personally I would MUCH rather pay to have good information available to the public for free rather than spending billions more on a few fighter jets and ships to guard an area of the country that few canadians have even seen. Thats just my opinion, as opposed to chris’.

  10. CBC says:

    It has been alleged that stats Canada workers and some who fill the forms are committing crimes. The head of Statistics Canada, resigns when his boss changes the rules. The question is forming, is anything in Canada to be trusted? Corruption being found in every province. Even CSIS reports it. The former head of the RCMP reported it years ago, when the alleged instigator was in power. We are lucky we have a decent Prime Minister now.

  11. Chris Baker says:

    Mikel –

    Like you (or at least I think I’m like you), I support paying my share to make our country a better place, even if I don’t directly benefit from these programs. That’s not my point.

    My point is that if you are looking for specific, detailed information that helps your business or gives you a competitive advantage, you should be expecting StatsCan to do this work for free.

    Basic and comprehensive information is already provided for free through the StatsCan website, even if it can be a grind trying to find things at times (believe me, I know). Stats on homelessness by province and municipal areas are available if you are looking to do some spadework – and staff at StatsCan have been known to guide you to the right spot.

    The point that I am trying to make is that there is now way that StatsCan should be expected to do the work that others can pay for (and do charge their clients for) without compensation. Frankly, since StatsCan does not receive a subsidy or any direct funding from the Government of Canada, this is the only way that they can continue to provide the comprehensive free information they already provide. (Whether or not StatsCan should be funded as a Government Department rather than having to earn its way as a commerial crown is another debate entirely.)

    To reiterate, I think we agree on the point of funding universal social programs. We may still disagree on whether or not it is appropriate for StatsCan to charge for custom data analysis.

    Chris Baker

  12. Chris Baker says:

    Sorry for the typo. The second paragraph should read:

    “My point is that if you are looking for specific, detailed information that helps your business or gives you a competitive advantage, you should NOT be expecting StatsCan to do this work for free.” (I capped to highlight the typo, not beacuse I’m shouting.)


  13. mikel says:

    Fair enough, I get that, but I was engaged in that ‘other debate’ you mention. I’m a landscaper by trade, the data I was looking for was certainly not information that would help my business get a competitive edge. This was information that SHOULD be in the public domain. If we had a more open government and there was something I could DO about public policy then perhaps I would have paid the $50, but since it was only for, what can only be called, my personal edification, I’m not willing to do that.

    But if you believe that the data is ALREADY so good and cheap and available, then why not make it more available? Businesses essentially write it off as a business expense which reduces their taxation, so its money that is gone anyway. If its ‘free’ then everybody pays, and when everybody pays, it could get that much better.

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