Canadians are increasingly shunning phone surveys, but they could still be providing Statistics Canada with valuable data each time they flush the toilet or flash their debit card.
The national statistics agency laid out an ambitious plan Thursday to overhaul the way it collects and reports on issues ranging from cannabis and opioid use to market-moving information on unemployment and economic growth.
According to four senior Statscan officials, the agency is in the midst of a major transformation as it adapts to a world of big data collected by other government agencies as well as private sector actors such as banks, cellphone companies and digital-based companies like Uber.
At its core, the shift means the agency will become less reliant on traditional phone surveys or having businesses fill out forms to report their sales data. Instead, Statscan is reaching agreements with other government departments and private companies in order to gain access to their raw data, such as point-of-sale information. According to agency officials, such arrangements reduce the reporting paperwork faced by businesses while creating the potential for Statscan to produce faster and more reliable information.
Key releases such as labour statistics or reporting on economic growth could come out sooner, reducing the lag time between the end of a quarter and reporting on results. Officials said economic data that is released quarterly could shift to monthly reporting. The greater access to raw data sources will also allow for more localized reporting at the neighbourhood level.
“The need for lower levels of geography is just so paramount now. To have national estimates, in all of our programs really, just is not sufficient. Issues are very often local,” said Karen Mihorean, Statscan’s director-general for social, health and labour statistics.
Ms. Mihorean and three other directors-general provided a two-hour briefing to reporters Thursday at the agency’s Ottawa headquarters to outline what Statscan calls its modernization efforts.
The briefing was aimed at drawing attention to a cross-country consultation tour where businesses and individuals can provide feedback on Statscan’s direction. The agency produces a wide range of economic and social statistics that are used to inform decisions by business, citizens and policy makers.
The recent federal budget provided Statscan with an extra $41-million over five years to support the modernization project. While Statscan has always relied on a mix of survey results and institutional data, Ms. Mihorean said obtaining database records now has priority over surveys.
Other examples of how Statscan is focusing on the databases of other organizations includes a partnership with the Canada Border Services Agency, where border-crossing photos of vehicle licence plates and traveller declarations of items that have been purchased now inform Statscan’s tourism statistics.
The officials said Statscan works closely with Canada’s Privacy Commissioner as it seeks new sources of data, and they said the agency has always gone to great length to ensure that no information is released that could identify individual Canadians.
However, some companies have expressed concern about Statscan’s request for customer data such as phone records, credit bureau reports and electricity bills, according to Tobi Cohen, a spokesperson for the Privacy Commissioner. Ms. Cohen said the office is in ongoing discussions with Statscan about this direction.
“We recommended Statscan let the Canadian public know how and why it is increasing its collection of data from administrative and other non-traditional sources,” she said in an e-mail.
Some of the more novel approaches to data collection are still in their infancy.
For instance, Statscan is working with McGill University and some municipalities to test wastewater samples for evidence of THC, the substance in cannabis that produces a high. Such testing could later extend to opioids. Participating municipalities in the pilot testing include Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver.
Jim Tebrake, director-general of macroeconomic accounts, said testing wastewater for drugs will help Statscan produce economic data on marijuana use as Canada shifts to legalization, but it could also have a public health benefit by identifying geographic locations where opioid use is on the rise.
While Mr. Tebrake has been focusing on marijuana data of late, he also plays a lead role in the production of the agency’s market-moving releases on the state of the economy.
During the briefing, he said the growing use of point-of-sale data could transform the way the agency produces its economic information by releasing data sooner without sacrificing quality.
“I’ve told my staff jokingly – but it’s serious in my head, they treat it as a joke – I said, ‘By the time I leave, I want zero data timeliness. I want the first quarter [data] on March 31st,’ … I do think, with this modernization, this possibility exists.”