Last week the Conservative government decided it would kill the mandatory long census form it normally sends out to thousands of Canadians every five years. On surface, such a move may seem unimportant and, to many, uninteresting - but it has significant implications for every citizen and every small community in Canada.
1. The death of smart government
Want to know who the biggest user of census data is? Government. To understand what services are needed, where problems or opportunities arise, or how a region is changing depends on having accurate data. The federal government, but also the provincial and, most importantly, local governments use Statistics Canada's data every day to find ways to save taxpayers money, improve services and make plans. Now, at the very moment that governments are finding new ways to use this information more effectively than ever before, it is being cut off.
This is a direct attack on the ability of government to make smart decisions. It is an attack on evidence-based public policy. Moreover, it was a political decision - it came from the minister's office and does not appear to reflect what Statistics Canada either wants or recommends. Of course, some governments prefer not to have information; all that data and evidence gets in the way of legislation and policies that are ineffective, costly and that reward vested interests (I'm looking at you, tough-on-crime agenda).
2. The economy is less competitive
But it isn't just government that will suffer. In the 21st century, data is at the heart of economic activity; it is what drives innovation, efficiencies and productivity. Starve our governments, NGOs businesses and citizens of data and you limit the wealth a modern economy will generate.
Like roads were in the 20th-century economy, data is the core infrastructure of a 21st-century economy. While just a boring public asset, it can nonetheless foster big companies, jobs and efficiencies. Roads spawned General Motors. Today, people often fail to recognize the largest company already created by the new economy - Google - is a data company. Google is effective and profitable not because it sells ads, but because it generates and leverages petabytes of data every day from billions of search queries. This allows it to provide all sorts of useful services such as pointing us, with uncanny accuracy, to merchandises and services we want, or better yet, spam we'd like to avoid. It can even predict when communities will experience flu epidemics four months in advance.
So it is astounding the minister in charge of Canada's digital economy, the minister who should understand the role of information in a 21st-century economy, is the minister who authorized killing the creation of this data. In doing so, he will deprive Canadians and their businesses of information that would make them, and thus our economy, more efficient, productive and profitable. Of course, the big international companies will probably be able to find the money to do their own augmented census, so the businesses that will really suffer will be small- and medium- size Canadian firms.
3. Democracy just got weaker
Of course, it's not just government and business that could gain from the data created by the census. Ordinary Canadians use it too. In theory, the census creates a level playing field in public-policy debates. Were the Statistics Canada website user-friendly and its data accessible (data, may I remind you, we've already paid for) then citizens could use it to fight ineffective legislation, unjust policies or wasteful practices. If that data is no longer collected by the state, those who are able to pay for their own surveys - read large companies - will have an advantage not only over citizens but also governments. With the decision to scrap the long census form, the ability of ordinary citizens to defend themselves against government and businesses took a heavy hit.
So who's to blame? Look not further than Tony Clement, was as Industry Minister oversees Statistics Canada. His office authorized this decision. But Statscan also shares the blame. In an era where the Internet has flattened the cost of distributing information, the government agency continues to charge citizens for data their tax dollars already paid for, its clunky website makes it difficult to find anything quickly and it distributes data in formats that are inaccessible to most ordinary Canadians. In short, the department has long made its data inaccessible to regular people so as a result it isn't hard to see why most Canadians don't know about or understand the census issue issue. Sadly, once they do wake up to the cost of this terrible decision, it will be too late.
David Eaves is a public-policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert based in Vancouver