It’s easy to be mystified by the word “data.” It sounds geeky. It is often spoken by the pointy-headed. There’s a sense that this thing called data is proliferating, wildly and out of sight, like some underground insect colony. We’re told that “data is the oil of the 21st century.” Governments write “roadmaps” toward “data strategies.” The discussion is conducted in ominous tones, at 40,000 feet.
The good news is, “data” is simpler than all that. It is just facts. And Canadian governments are suffering from a facts shortage.
Asking Ottawa to come up with a Canadian facts strategy would sound a little strange. But a national facts strategy is exactly what’s needed. Governments don’t know a whole bunch of basic facts about the country. That, in sum, is what a team of Globe journalists recently learned over the course of a months-long investigation into Canada’s glaring public-data gaps. The discovery is more than a little bit scary.
There are a lot of things we just don’t know about ourselves. Such as how far Canadians drive; or how often we get divorced; or how many of us get evicted from our homes; or how much drug companies pay Canadian doctors. Ignorance is not bliss.
Mention of data tends to spook people these days. Digital giants such as Google and Facebook scoop up the endless cascade of facts that we reveal about ourselves online – our location, what we buy, where we browse – and sell them to advertisers and political campaigns. The all-seeing eye of Silicon Valley has rather too much data about each of us.
But the missing government facts are different. They’re not about individuals but about Canadians in the aggregate. The information isn’t needed to sell things to you. It’s needed to make better government decisions for a community.
An absence of knowledge is a dangerous thing. How about, for example, not being unable to tell whether certain demographic groups within our borders are suddenly suffering from rising death rates? That’s the position Canada finds itself in.
Because we are uncomfortable asking people about their race and class, our death records don’t record the ethnicity and education level of the deceased. So, while American researchers were able to use rich public data to learn that the white working class is suffering an epidemic of drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning and suicide – driving an unprecedented spike in their mortality rate – Canadians are in the dark about the possibility of similar problems here.
The most obvious problem with our data deficit, of course, is that Canadian politicians and voters often don’t have good evidence to make the right decisions, whether the issue is maternal health, people with disabilities, energy use or the housing industry. That’s fine if you belong to the school of policy-making where decisions are made on feelings and hunches. The rest of us should demand better.
That includes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. They talk a good game about “open data” and took a big, if obvious, step in reinstating the mandatory long-form census when they formed government. But they shouldn’t rest on their laurels: Canada’s long-standing data gap may not be a problem of their making, but if they don’t take dramatic steps to fix it, it’s on their hands.
They could pass a law making all government information open and machine-readable (that is, intelligible to computers) by default. This isn’t a controversial idea in the United States: President Donald Trump just signed a bipartisan bill to the same effect.
The Liberals could also give Statscan more money. Yes, our national data problem goes beyond one agency, cutting across provinces and federal departments. But we have an unusually concentrated statistics regime, and Statscan doesn’t have the budget to do basic things such as conduct road-use surveys or publish annual marriage rates.
Above all, Canadians need to demand these things. Right now, our politicians are as likely to feel heat for trying to gather too much data as they are about not gathering enough. (See: last year’s banking data snafu.)
As a society, we have consented to a wild west of corporate data collection, designed to sell us stuff, while our leaders are failing to collect and share information needed to make government work better. That calls for a look in the mirror – a crystal-clear mirror that actually reflects us back to ourselves.