Canada could fix gaps in public data by improving co-ordination between provinces, copying ideas from other countries and reforming key pieces of legislation that stifle access to information, according to academics, former Statistics Canada workers and international experts.
The Globe and Mail spent six months examining key information gaps in Canada and the reasons why our public-data system is so patchy, discovering many of the problems stem from data, such as health records, that are stuck in provincial silos and not comparable – a desire by some governments and, at times, Statistics Canada to lock it away – and out-of-date acts or laws that stymie data access.
Around the same time, the federal public service set itself the same task and produced a set of recommendations that are awaiting action from the federal government. A report published in November and authored by three senior civil servants, including Anil Arora, chief statistician at Statscan, called for a sea change in the management of public data in Canada.
“Managing, using and sharing data will be crucial in the coming years, but the government is not set up to treat data as a strategic asset for policy-making, program design or service delivery,” the report said. “There is no strategic oversight to the use of data.”
Among the report’s recommendations is the creation of a chief data steward for the federal government to give the management of public information greater pride of place in government decision-making. It also urged Ottawa to empower Indigenous communities to improve their own data gathering.
Deciding what information to gather is often determined by politics and money. But deciding what information to make public is often a matter of law in Canada. And the country’s data laws are restrictive by global standards.
One roadblock to making data public is Canada’s system of Crown copyright, in place since 1921. It means anything published by the federal government belongs to the Crown for 50 years. (The United States, by comparison, hasn’t allowed government copyright since the 19th century.)
There’s a live scholarly debate over whether data are covered by the law, but the question can dissuade researchers from using government figures that would be useful to their work.
“I’ve talked to professors who have worried that if they take a table from a government publication it’s going to be such a hassle to get permission that they just leave it out,” said Amanda Wakaruk, copyright librarian at the University of Alberta.
In 2017, Ms. Wakaruk petitioned the government to scrap copyright protection for all government works that have been made public – for example, by giving it a creative commons licence, meaning anyone can share and use it.
“If you look at the history of Crown copyright, there’s really no current justification to keep it,” she said. “It’s antiquated, it’s outdated, it’s unnecessary.”
Improving access to data would also require changes to the Statistics Act. In 2016, a group of social science and health researchers wrote a letter to Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, calling for an overhaul of the 1985 law. It contained 10 recommendations, including ending the practice of requiring external researchers to become “deemed employees” of Statscan to access the agency’s Research Data Centres, and including legislative language “that is open to remote access to data.”
Canadian and international researchers suggest the federal government could look to other jurisdictions to get Canada’s data accessibility up to date. When DJ Patil was chief data scientist in former U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration, he practised something called “scout and scale.” He went looking around the country to see what worked and applied it at the federal level. One thing he noticed was “opening up a bunch of data” worked.
Some jurisdictions in Canada could provide good case studies for Statscan to learn from. Researchers say Manitoba has excellent public-health data, for example. Ontario and Alberta have some of the country’s best public numbers on energy use. Edmonton has scored high among Canadian cities in open data barometers. British Columbia has detailed education data and Newfoundland and Labrador posts local data on its 400 communities.
Some researchers would like to see a national open data portal that incorporates not just the holdings of the federal government, but the numbers gathered by cities and provinces as well.
“There needs to a central clearinghouse of publicly available datasets in Canada,” said Fuyuki Kurasawa, director of the Global Digital Citizenship Lab at Toronto’s York University. Right now, each jurisdiction has some kind of public data site, but “they don’t co-ordinate very well with each other, let alone with the federal government.”
Many northern European countries encourage local and foreign researchers to access the nation’s data, thereby increasing the number of eyeballs trained on the country’s problems. Governments that have opened their data stores are effectively expanding their work force, said David Green, professor of economics at the University of British Columbia.
“What the Germans and the Danes and others have realized is if you make this data more accessible, you get the best researchers around the world working on your problems,” he said.
New Zealand also has decades of experience in tracking and publishing stats on ethnicity – details that in Canada are lacking virtually everywhere.
Unlike in Canada, ethnicity is recorded on birth and death registrations in New Zealand, which gives that country insight into trends on things such as maternal health and mortality.
“We have systemic issues on data gaps,” said Munir Sheikh, Statscan’s chief statistician from 2008 to 2010 who is now adjunct professor at Carleton University. As the country’s pace of change quickens, he said, “there’s a need for statistics to keep pace with the change – which it hasn’t been able to so far.”
The Globe’s investigation: How you can help
Data gaps uncovered so far
The Globe and Mail has uncovered myriad data deficits, culled from dozens of interviews, research reports, government documents, international searches and feedback from our own newsroom. Here’s a list of what we found, which we’ll be adding to as the investigation continues.