Canadian Chamber of Commerce chief economist Stephen Tapp is on a mission to, as he puts it, “democratize data” in this country.
His organization has debuted a new online tool designed to do just that. And it’s pretty good.
Last month, the chamber unveiled what it calls the Business Conditions Terminal – a one-stop-shopping centre for Canadian economic statistics most pertinent to Canadian business. The hub contains more than 2,200 statistical series, drawn from 30 data providers, automatically updated every morning. It’s sorted into useful subcategories and jam-packed with interactive graphs and charts that you can play around with any number of ways.
If you’re an economic data nerd or aspiring to be one (you know who you are), this thing is pretty cool. And, it’s free. (For now, at least.)
“We want this to be as available and useful as possible, to as many companies as it can be,” Mr. Tapp said in an interview last week.
The idea is to provide Canada’s businesses – particularly the national chamber’s more than 200,000 members – with cost-effective data and intelligence about the economic and financial conditions in which they operate.
“There’s lots of data out there … but it’s often difficult for people to access. And for a lot of companies, they don’t have the time, the expertise, they don’t have data science people working for them,” Mr. Tapp said. “This is our effort to put these things together, and let small-business owners unlock the power of data themselves.”
It’s a tall order. But there’s no question that the need is there.
A few years ago, The Globe and Mail published a series of articles exposing Canada’s “data gap” – areas where the country either lacked the statistical data-keeping or, more often, it was too scattered and disparate and disorganized and costly to be useful. In some areas – most notably, the labour market – these data deficits had become a pressing problem for businesses.
Then COVID-19 hit. The Chamber of Commerce’s data terminal project has its roots in the crazy early weeks and months of the pandemic, when policy makers and businesses were desperate for better, faster, more complete data to try to get a handle on the fast-changing economic landscape.
In April, 2020, the chamber started working with Statistics Canada to tap into the chamber’s membership for quick, high-frequency business surveys. The result was Statscan’s Canadian Survey on Business Conditions, which the government statistical agency now publishes every quarter.
Continuing this collaboration with Statscan, the chamber set up its own Business Data Lab early last year, to deliver business conditions data and analysis. The Business Conditions Terminal is the platform that emerged from that work.
Of course, Statscan itself has long provided a free online treasure trove of valuable and diverse data on Canada’s economy and society. Its contents are vast. I use it multiple times a day, and can safely say that I couldn’t do my job without it.
But the site can be about as user-friendly as needles in haystacks. Even when I know what I’m looking for, it can be hair-pullingly difficult to unearth the right data in a search.
The chamber’s new tool bundles various statistical indicators together into topical hubs such as “workforce,” “business activity,” “financial conditions,” “international trade,” and “sentiment and outlook,” among others. Interactive graphics allow users to quickly see visual comparisons, adjust time frames and drill down by industry and/or region.
The chamber’s economic experts also synthesize all of that information to provide analysis as well as a score, on a five-point scale, of the conditions within each of those subtopics and of the overall business climate. (Their current score for overall Canadian business conditions is a 3, or “moderate.”)
“Data sets are a lot more valuable when they’re linked,” Mr. Tapp said. “A lot of the work here was just to try to do the best we could to try to link these data sets up, because that’s where you can tell the stories with the data.”
Having taken the Business Conditions Terminal for a short test drive, I will say that there were a few things I don’t love. It could use some improved labelling; I’m often not sure exactly what I’m looking at, what it represents and the source of the data in front of me. It would also be nice to be able to easily extract data in graphs into a spreadsheet. Some functions are not as intuitive as I would like.
But these are quibbles for a tool that, without question, contains oodles of valuable information for anyone wanting to dissect the Canadian economy any number of ways.
Mr. Tapp describes the terminal as “a pilot project,” and notes that the government funding for the Business Data Lab runs out in March, 2024. So, the chamber is going to have to get creative to generate revenue in order to keep the terminal free to use. That’s definitely Mr. Tapp’s goal.
“We now have some products out there which we see as proof-of-concept. So, we’re going to try to go to market and get some funding from that,” he said. “We’re hoping to keep … still doing that public-good aspect, and still providing things that are free.”
“Because for me, the main challenge and the main opportunity was to democratize data. We want companies using this.”