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Wayne Smith, who replaced Munir Sheikh as Canada's chief statistician during the census controversy, gives an interview in his Ottawa office on Feb. 11, 2011. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Wayne Smith, who replaced Munir Sheikh as Canada's chief statistician during the census controversy, gives an interview in his Ottawa office on Feb. 11, 2011. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Is census data usable? 'Our thinking has evolved,' chief statistician says Add to ...

So it depends on the outcome.

If we can get Canadians to participate and get the response rates higher -- from the sampling error perspective, we can do as well or better.

Is that even for small populations [subgroups]

The same principle applies even in small populations. If the response rate goes up, with a higher sample, I get just as many people responding at 60 per cent in any given area as I did in the 2006 census.

But you’re assuming the behaviour of the respondents is similar across different demographics.

That’s the other big issue. That’s the next piece. The next piece is non-response error. I mean think about it. People publish survey data all the time and you’ve probably never heard of non-response error until this discussion.

You learn about it in polling. Right?

In polling ... their actual response rate is like 6 per cent or 10 per cent or 25 per cent. The exposure to non-response error is very high in these polls and very high in other non-survey research – the risk of it.

I invite you to talk to other experts in statistics, but the reality is that there is no necessary link between the response rate and having a degree of non-response bias that actually makes the data less usable and unfit for use.

No but it was the compulsory nature of the other one [the mandatory 2006 census long form]that helped.

The only way the compulsory nature helped ...

If you think about it we had 94-per-cent response rate in 2006. That means 6 per cent of the population didn’t respond. That’s 2 million people. You talk about low income people. That’s a very sizeable piece of potential non-response bias. If you look at the 2006 census technical evaluation papers, there are populations with significant non-response bias. Young males are traditionally undercounted in the census. Recent immigrants are traditionally undercounted.

The only survey that isn’t exposed to non-response bias is one with a 100 per cent response rate.

You make it seem like there’s no reason why Mr. [Munir]Sheikh, in his parting note, said...

No. I’m ...

He said that the National Household Survey is not a substitute for the census long form.

The issue is risk. If we could go in with a guarantee of a 96-per-cent response rate, the risk, the exposure is substantially reduced.

If we have a 50 per cent response rate, there is greater risk.

But there is no guarantee this data will not be usable. There is no guarantee it will be subject to major non-response bias beyond the levels we’ve traditionally seen in the census. We’ll see. It may happen but you can’t say before it starts that it’s going to happen.

Are you telling me that we’re going to get just as many Inuit, just as many unemployed, just as many people who don’t speak English and are immigrants.

I am saying that either I nor anybody else can tell you today that we’re not.

But it’s a fair bet.

No it’s not a fair bet. There is no scientific reason why you would say that before it even starts, before I see the results, that there’s going to necessarily be a significant problem with the count of Inuit or Métis or immigrants beyond the levels we’ve already seen in the 2006 census.

So you’re saying there is no reason to believe right now that there might be a poorer reading of small sub-population groups?

There’s no necessary reason why that would be the case. There’s a heightened level of risk and that’s the most you can actually say. Then the rest of it will depend on what happens and that’s why it’s so vitally important we get the support.

You’re hoping that business groups, community groups [support this] How do you ensure they do?

We’ve hired a very large communications staff regionally. And they’re already out there, they’re actually out there meeting with associations, we’ve met with Indian reserves, we’ve met with municipalities, we’ve met with a wide variety of organizations. And so far, I can tell you that the reaction has been very favourable. The indications are that we’re going to get support.

You can’t tell me the budget you’ve had to add to your communications budget to promote the NHS?

We don’t actually have to add anything because we were going anyway, we were going for the census. We were going to do this for the census. So all this extra cost of going to this municipal government and saying, we need your support for the census and for the NHS and sending them just for the census is trivial.

So you’ve got $660-million budget.

Maximum.

And I assume then by rule of thumb that about a fifth of that would be for the NHS then?

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