Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On the physical constraints to the independence of Statistics Canada


Before this weekend, the biggest news relating to Statistics Canada had to do with the very high response rate to the 2016 census just concluded, 98.4% of those surveyed nation-wide responding. The news Friday that chief statistician Wayne Smith had resigned in protest caught many people off guard.

Canada's chief statistician has resigned in protest over what he says is the federal governments' failure to protect Statistics Canada's independence.

Wayne Smith says the government's decision to create Shared Services Canada and centralize all information technology services across government has compromised Statistics Canada's ability to fulfil its mandate.

"I have made the best effort I can to have this situation remediated, but to no effect," Smith said in a note to the National Statistical Council, which advises him. "I cannot lend my support to government initiatives that will purport to protect the independence of Statistics Canada when, in fact, that independence has never been more compromised,"

"I do not wish to preside over the decline of what is still, but cannot remain in these circumstances, a world-leading statistical office."

[. . .]

Shared Services was created by the previous government to centralize and standardize information technology across the federal government in a bid to save money. It has struggled to meet expectations with several agencies, including the RCMP and the Canadian Forces, which have complained of data centre crashes, red tape, bad customer service and unpaid bills.

Smith said he had issued a warning that ever since Statistics Canada began relying on Shared Services for its IT, the research department had begun losing control of the information it collects from Canadians through operations such as the long-form census.

In the note, Smith argued that Shared Services holds "an effective veto over many of Statistics Canada's decisions concerning the collection, processing, storage, analysis and dissemination of official statistics through denial or constructive denial of essential services."

"Statistics Canada is increasingly hobbled in the delivery of its programs through disruptive, ineffective, slow and unaffordable supply of physical informatics services by Shared Services Canada," he added.


(Smith's full statement is available here.)

I said "many people" above because reports about the failures of Shared Services have appeared periodically in the past year. On the 30th of January, for instance, the Ottawa Citizen published James Bagnall's article "Circuit overload: Why Shared Services Canada is struggling" looking at the problems of the service.

Shared Services is responsible for collapsing 63 federal email programs into a single system, consolidating nearly 500 data centres into seven and streamlining the government’s telecommunications. By 2020, if all goes well, the government will have invested more than $1 billion to modernize a ramshackle electronic infrastructure that is currently vulnerable to hackers and costly to run.

If it works, taxpayers can expect to save at least $60 million annually to run federal websites and online services. But on Shared Services’ present course, it may take years more than planned to complete this multi-faceted project – at a cost that can only be guessed at now.

It’s not going smoothly. Government workers are no longer surprised to receive notices that begin with the telltale line: “We have been advised by Shared Services Canada …” What usually follows is an explanation of which systems aren’t working at that particular time, with an estimate of when they’ll be restored.

Sometimes it’s an email issue. Earlier this week, for instance, employees at one of the smaller departments were informed that their emails were getting through to the public but not to government colleagues.

Other times, data centres are to blame. The failure of a power distribution unit two months ago at the government’s data centre along Aviation Parkway triggered an emergency shutdown at multiple government websites for days.


Briefly put, technological issues have combined with a far too broad a mandate to create a technological impasse. This July, CBC carried the relevant federal minister's CBC promises to make Shared Services work, perhaps ironically at the same time that it also reported on Statistics Canada's complaints that Shared Services was not meeting its needs for the 2016 census. After his resignation, Smith was interviewed by the CBC at length about the problems Statistics Canada encountered.

The Liberal government has inherited a Conservative technological initiative in government that is not working well at all in Shared Services, much as it has with the Phoenix payroll service for federal government employees. As with Phoenix, it has not made obvious signs of moving beyond this. The only conclusion to be drawn from this is the obvious: The institutional constraints to the independence of Statistics Canada that I have written about here in the past are not the only sorts of constraints. There are material constraints, too. As yet, there are no signs that these latter will be removed.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

On the ongoing depopulation of Cape Breton


The other day on my personal blog, I linked to a CBC News report describing how a Cape Breton store and bakery, desperate for workers, was offering free land to people who would move to that Nova Scotian island and work for them.

A family-run business is trying a unique approach to recruit people to live and work year-round in rural Cape Breton by offering two free acres of land to people who are willing to relocate.

Farmer's Daughter is a general store and bakery in Whycocomagh, N.S., which has a population of about 800. Sisters Sandee MacLean and Heather Coulombe took over the business earlier this year from their dairy farmer parents, who started it nearly 25 years ago.

MacLean told CBC News that the store has great employees — but it needs more of them to expand their operations.

"We have big ideas about what we'd like to do," she said.

The business would like to increase the number of year-round employees from 12 to at least 15, but hasn't gotten much response to traditional "help wanted" ads. Many young people have left the community to work in places like Halifax or Alberta.


This story has gotten quite a lot of attention nationally. I would be entirely justified, alas, in suspecting that any bump in migration will be as minor as that which occurred this February when the Cape Breton If Donald Trump Wins website briefly went viral. This humour website did get quite a lot of attention, and apparently did result in at least some inquiries. By this July, though, it seems as if the only migrants the website attracted were temporary ones, in the form of tourists.

A three-ringed binder, tucked into the corner of a small visitor information centre in Nova Scotia, may contain the proof of what many Cape Bretoners have suspected — that more Americans are descending on the island this year.

And locals say Donald Trump is the reason.

All day, tourists flow in and out of the one-room visitor information centre in the village of Baddeck, asking for advice on what to see and how to make the most of nearby attractions. A glance at a visitors' book — marked "Where are you from?" in block capital letters — reveals various American locations: Connecticut, Florida, New York City.

[. . .]

Room nights sold across the province rose by three per cent compared to the first half of 2015, but Cape Breton saw a boom of 16 per cent.

There was also a 12 per cent increase of visitors to Nova Scotia from the United States, while visitation from overseas declined seven per cent.

Although there are clearly many American tourists, it's harder to come by Americans who are actually following the website's advice and immigrating.


Back in January 2015, I looked into the phenomenon of out-migration from Atlantic Canada, the easternmost region of Canada and one that has consistently failed to share in the relative prosperity of other provinces. This out-migration does not occur at the same rate throughout. In the province of Nova Scotia, for instance, the capital city of Halifax has continued to experience some growth close to the Canadian average. At the other end is Cape Breton Island, a mountainous island in the northeast of the province famed as the last stronghold of Canadian Gaelic language and culture and as a land with a sadly dysfunctional industrial economy. Once, before the world wars, coal mining helped sustain a cosmopolitan industrial working class, living in the cities and towns which now constitute the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. But now, the mines are shut and nothing has replaced them. With no local economic motor and not nearly enough subsidies and income transfers coming from outside, the population of the entire island has been collapsing for decades, as the incipient natural decrease of the island's population is accelerated by emigration.

Nova Scotia's Finance and Treasury Board has noted the scale of this collapse. Rural Nova Scotia--Nova Scotia outside of Halifax, even--has been in steep decline for some time.



Cape Breton has done much worse than the average. Chris Shannon's widely shared 2014 Cape Breton Post article looks at the scale, and the inevitability, of this.

Fifteen-year-old Taylor O’Brien says the lure of more opportunities in the West has her thinking a move to Alberta is in her future after she completes Grade 9 at Bridgeport school in Glace Bay this June.

She says the plan is to move to Fox Creek, Alta., a town in the heart of that province’s oil industry. Her father lives there and O’Brien says she wants to move in July, in time to get settled and begin high school there in the fall.

“I really thought it through. I want to move,” she says.

“I’m too used to being stuck around here. It gets old after a while … seeing the same places. I see the Mayflower Mall like 10 times a week. I just want to explore.”

Sydney resident Thérèse Begg, 32, along with her spouse, intend to leave Cape Breton in the next couple of years for either Ontario or British Columbia.

It’s due to a lack of nightlife in the downtown and the small number of quality restaurants, she says.

Despite making a decent living as a baker and her partner being a machinist, Begg says it’s the lifestyle that’s driving them away from her hometown.

“There’s no variety of anything to do. Everybody goes to the hockey game, go to Tim Hortons, and they go to the movies. And that’s pretty much all there is to do,” says Begg, who grew up in Sydney but lived in Halifax for 10 years before returning in 2010.


The statistical trends in 2014 were grim. They have not changed at all.

CBRM’s economic development manager John Whalley says he’s more concerned about the rate of decline, which isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

“It’s actually accelerating,” he says.

“Cape Breton Island, in terms of rate, saw the biggest decline of any region in the country, according to this (Statistics Canada) data, and CBRM, obviously, constitutes a big part of that.”

In 2012-13, the figures show the CBRM lost 931 people to interprovincial migration to other parts of Canada, and a further 301 people moved to other areas of Nova Scotia (known as intraprovincial migration).

The other municipalities in Cape Breton are worse off with declines in population from the 2006 to 2011 census years at 4.6 per cent for Richmond County, 5.7 per cent for Inverness County, and 6.3 per cent for Victoria County.

Whalley says long-range projections from consulting firm Stantec estimate the CBRM’s population in 2031 would be approximately 78,000.

The island’s population is estimated to shrink to 102,000 from its current size of 134,535 people.


My Prince Edward Island, in marked contrast, is projected to experience relatively strong growth over that timeframe, having surpassed the declining population of Cape Breton just a few years ago.

All I can do is note this trend, rooted in the very deep-seated issues described. Cape Breton is beautiful--its natives agree, its visitors agree--but relatively few of these people actually want to live here. It's difficult to see how this could change, barring something completely unexpected and--frankly--unimaginable. At most, the ongoing slowdown in Alberta might slow down emigration, for a time. (Or, perhaps more plausibly, it might redirect it.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

#CensusFail, or, how #Census2016 is not as big a hit in Australia as in Canada


I've learned that the Australian census, recently concluded, has been the subject of as much controversy as in Canada in recent years. The big difference is that, whereas Canada's census controversies were contrived by the then-ruling Conservative Party government, Australia's worries are more deeply rooted.

Bloomberg's Michael Heath authored the article "Census Boycott Gathers Momentum Amid Australia Privacy Concerns".

A backlash against Australia’s national census is gathering momentum with lawmakers joining calls to boycott Tuesday’s population count amid concern data gathered will be used to build wide-ranging profiles of individuals and violate their right to privacy.

Nick Xenophon, who leads a minority party in parliament, is refusing to provide his name to the compulsory census and thus won’t be able to submit a completed document, risking a fine of A$180 ($138) a day. Other lawmakers , including Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, have also threatened to withhold their names.

Fearing a widespread boycott that could compromise data that’s essential for public service provision, the government has sought to downplay the concerns.

“Privacy matters,” Xenophon told reporters. The Australian Bureau of Statistics “has failed to make a compelling case on why names must be provided and stored for four years. All names will be turned into a code that ultimately can be used to identify you.”

The crux of the debate is over a “statistical linkage key” that will be created for an individual from the name submitted on their census form. Names will also be kept for four years rather than being destroyed after 18 months, as is the current practice.

Privacy advocates say that, irrespective of names being destroyed, the linkage keys will allow answers to future questions to be linked to census responses, enabling the government to compile a profile of a person.


Edward Johnson, also writing for Bloomberg, produced "Census Crash Spurs Australia Security Fears in Blow to Turnbull".

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government is facing its first big test since scraping back into office last month, after an apparent overseas attack crashed Australia’s online census and threatened to derail the survey.

The five-yearly census, which is used to underpin economic planning and public service provision, was shut down late yesterday after four so-called denial of service attacks, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The failure is embarrassing for the government, which has defended the integrity of the survey amid calls for a boycott over privacy concerns.

The statistics bureau shut down the site out of an “abundance of caution” to ensure the data already submitted by some 2 million Australians couldn’t be compromised, Treasurer Scott Morrison said Wednesday at a news conference with Turnbull. He joined the prime minister in urging Australians to complete the survey once the site was restored, saying it was “critical to support economic planning.”

This year’s census had already been mired in controversy as lawmakers joined calls to boycott the population count amid concern data gathered could be used to build wide-ranging profiles of individuals and violate their privacy. The debacle is an unwelcome distraction for Turnbull, who was returned to office with a wafer-thin majority of just one seat after the July 2 election -- a result that has eroded confidence in his leadership.

“The sense of trust and goodwill toward the census has been tarnished,” said Zareh Ghazarian, a politics lecturer at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. There’s a risk that people will “have greater reservations now about completing the survey” and the data garnered will be incomplete, he said.


I have seen Australian friends actively complaining on social networking sites about their problems filing their electronic returns.

Do any readers know more about this? If you are Australian, can you explain your perspective? I'm quite curious, and I'm sure our other readers are, too.