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Canada Federal budget 2019: New funding will fill key data gaps, create Canadian information centre

The federal budget is channelling tens of millions of dollars toward filling key data gaps in housing, gender equality, the labour force and Indigenous communities, areas where researchers say Canadians are often in the dark thanks to spotty or inaccessible numbers.

The new funding includes more than $15-million over five years to create a Canadian Centre for Energy Information, an apparent effort to redress what experts have long called a woeful lack of understanding of the country’s energy landscape and efforts to combat climate change.

But despite the spending bump, some critics are already worrying the money falls short of what Canada needs to fix its data deficit, which often leaves the country lagging peers such as Britain and the United States in the availability of core statistics.

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Tuesday’s budget commitments come amid a continuing Globe and Mail series looking at Canada’s chronic shortage of public data. For example, we don’t know the annual marriage and divorce rate, how far Canadians drive, how many long-term-care homes exist in the country or how much doctors are paid by drug companies, among dozens of other blind spots.

In response to The Globe’s reporting, the Liberal government declined to make any firm commitments to fill these data gaps, even while acknowledging that Canada has many.

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.

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* By data gap, we mean areas at the national level in which data are not collected or readily accessible. These could be areas where there is no ability to compare across provinces or cities, where the existing information is years out of date, published infrequently or not comparable with prior years.

Still, a hub for energy stats is something academics have been urging for years. The budget promises about $3-million a year for Natural Resources Canada to collaborate with Statistics Canada on a website that will compile energy numbers from across levels of government, and look to collect missing data.

Nicholas Rivers, a Canada Research Chair in climate and energy policy at the University of Ottawa, says such gaps pockmark the field. Numbers on how much gasoline is sold in various provinces are often out of date and full of unexplained holes, for example.

But while Mr. Rivers approved of the government’s proposed data hub in principle, he said its budget appears inadequate to the challenge facing the country. He noted that, in 2016, the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration had annual funding of US$122-million, or an order of magnitude more than what Ottawa is providing for the new centre.

Three million dollars "is not nothing, but it’s not transformative either,” he said. “I would be disappointed if this is just a reorganization of existing resources with a new website.”

There are similar concerns around the $1.5-million over five years that has been allocated to collecting more standardized data around gender equality.

“It is great that the federal government is beginning to shine a light on the lack of data to inform gender-aware policy-making,” said Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “But the funding is likely to be highly inadequate to develop the kinds of data required. It is unclear to me if standardizing frameworks is as important as identifying what new types of data need to be collected or what new analyses need to be performed.”

The budget contains several other passels of money for data collection by different ministries, including around housing supply and organ donation. It promises $79-million over seven years for education, health and other surveys in Indigenous communities, to be led by the First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC) – a commitment the group’s executive director Jonathan Dewar applauded.

“As a First Nations-led non-profit committed to helping First Nations achieve data sovereignty, FNIGC welcomes the announcement in the federal budget of permanent and ongoing funding for our current survey efforts,” he said.

Still, relatively little new money in this budget goes directly to Statscan – despite previous Liberal efforts to restore funding to the national statistical agency that had been cut by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

“It’s a disappointment,” said Wayne Smith, former chief statistician at Statscan, adding that he had expected to see more reinvestment in the agency’s base funding. “There’s not going to be a fundamental change in the availability of data without new funding.”

In the dark: The cost of Canada’s data deficit

Shot in the dark: On vaccinations for measles and other diseases, data gaps leave Canadians guessing

Globe and Mail reporters will continue to collect and report on data gaps that affect Canadians. If you have one in mind, please submit a description of it. Data gaps will be investigated by our reporters before they are published.

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