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Canada Statscan could fill public data gaps if Ottawa increases funds, chief statistician says

Canada's chief statistician Anil Arora seen in Ottawa on Oct. 26, 2016.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s chief statistician says the agency could fill some of the country’s key data gaps if the federal government gave it more money to do so and defended his record at the helm of Statistics Canada against criticism that the country’s approach to public data is too restrictive.

His comments come as a broad range of civil society groups and prominent Canadians call for urgent improvements to the country’s public data regime in the wake of a Globe and Mail investigation showing that Canada lacks crucial numbers for understanding its government, business landscape and most vulnerable people.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Anil Arora acknowledged the agency still has “lots of work to do,” but didn’t commit to filling any of the data gaps The Globe identified and queried him on, from annual marriage and divorce rates to the number of long-term care homes in the country.

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“It’s not just about getting more and more data out there,” Mr. Arora said. “It’s about doing it in responsible ways. It’s about making sure the scientific rigour is in what we do … More volume does not just translate into more knowledge.”

Mr. Arora also dismissed questions about whether Statscan would resume the collection of certain data sets related to family structure, road use and senior care, saying that he and his colleagues were best placed to determine how to collect such information. “You’re not a statistical agency,” Mr. Arora said. “We are.”

The Liberal government has acknowledged that Canada has important holes in its data regime, but declined to comment on its concrete plans to fill them. Opposition MPs and civil society groups have called on the government to make a package of reforms, including loosening the country’s Crown copyright law and creating more common data-collection standards. Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains did not respond to a series of questions about particular gaps in Canadian public data, including the absence of figures on how far Canadians drive every year and the well-being of people with disabilities.

In an editorial board meeting with The Globe on Thursday, Mr. Bains noted that his government has made “investments” in the agency in recent years. “Make no mistake, we’ll continue on that trend,” he said.

But the minister also emphasized that increased data collection will be difficult as long as the public is skeptical of such efforts. He pointed to the backlash this fall when news broke of Statscan’s plans to gather personal financial information from the big banks to better understand consumer spending. “There’s a trust gap,” Mr. Bains said. “We’ve got to get the broader Canadian public on side.”

Critics on Parliament Hill and beyond have been urging the government in recent weeks to find ways to gather more data and make it public.

“We have to say this is a top priority … We can’t afford the status quo,” said Colin Deacon, an Independent Senator and entrepreneur from Nova Scotia. “How do we know we’re dealing with top issues, and dealing with them effectively, and cost-efficiently? We have no idea.”

A more robust data regime “should be a top three priority, for all three levels of government,” said Jamison Steeve, executive director of the Institute of Competitiveness and Prosperity, an organization that tracks and analyzes Ontario’s economic progress, funded by the provincial government. “With a rise in populism around the world, one of the main challenges is an ability to have a conversation with a common fact base.”

The health sector has huge information gaps, The Globe found, partly because provinces have different ways of collecting and publishing data. These gaps include average waiting times for mental-health services and which cities or towns have lower vaccination rates.

Frank Welsh, director of policy for the Canadian Public Health Association, urged the federal government to bridge some of the gaps by circulating a memorandum of understanding where provinces would agree to collect statistics using a common methodology in areas such as obesity, injury prevention and cancer. “What would be a great step forward is to identify a core set of health statistics across the provinces and territories and agree on some methodologies to improve them,” he said.

Business groups, meanwhile, are urging the government for better demographic data to help them decide where to set up shop and where to expand. Scott Smith, senior director of intellectual property and innovation policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said retailers, for example, are often flying blind about their potential market because of delayed and patchy data. “There’s no reason you couldn’t have a sense of median incomes in particular areas year over year,” he said. “Much of the information that could be available to business and useful is not digitized.”

For his part, Mr. Arora of Statscan called on the government to provide more funding to gather data on the digital economy.

“How are Canadians interacting in the digital age? How many people are using Uber as a supplement to their income? How many people are renting out their places as part of Airbnb – because they have to? The gig economy: how many people are going from job to job to job?”

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These questions mean Canadians lack insights into how spending, careers, and household finances are changing in the internet age, he said. “We know very little about that area, and that’s a major gap.”

Brian Masse, the NDP’s innovation, science and economic development critic, said his focus during this Parliament will be reforming the system of Crown copyright, which means government publications belong to the state for 50 years, a rule that many researchers believe stifles the spread of government data. “For Crown copyright, it’s really low-hanging fruit,” Mr. Masse said. “Dropping our current stance is going to be economically, socially, culturally an asset, to have that information shared. Bottom line is, we pay for it anyway. If we don’t use it, what good is it?”




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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.
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