Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Four article links on the aftermath of the 2016 Canada census

What, might readers of Demography Matters ask, has become of the Canadian census? Four article illustrate the contours surrounding this issue.

Last week in The Globe and Mail, Tavia Grant's article "Census response rate is 98 per cent, early calculations show" featured.

Canadians really were, it seems, enthusiastic about the census.

Statistics Canada is still calculating exact response rates, but it says early indications are that the overall response rate is 98 per cent – and about 96 per cent for the long-form census. That is higher than long-form response rates in the previous two censuses, the agency says.

“Early indications are positive,” Marc Hamel, director-general of the census program, said in an interview.

These numbers could shift up or down as results from early enumeration of Northern communities, late filers and First Nations reserves are added in, he said. “The range of error is not very high … it’s likely to move, but we’re talking most likely, at most, one percentage point.”

[. . .]

The sample size for the long-form census was increased to one in four households this year from one in five in 2006. The combination of high response rates this year and a bigger sample size will yield “incredibly precise data,” chief statistician Wayne Smith said.

Grant also had another article in The Globe and Mail, "Statistics Canada's tech issues hampering its mandate: chief".

Statistics Canada’s technological troubles have become so acute that its chief statistician says they are hampering the agency’s ability to carry out its mandate – and he places the blame squarely on one source: Shared Services Canada, the department now running the agency’s informatics infrastructure.

Statscan’s website has for months been beset by crashes, delays and outages, most notably on July 8, when its main website was down for more than seven hours on the day of the release of the labour force survey.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail at his Ottawa office, chief statistician Wayne Smith said that that outage – along with a long list of other information technology troubles – relates to problems with Shared Services.

“It’s had a significant impact on our operations,” Mr. Smith said. “Our service to the public has suffered, clearly, in ways that we would rather not have happened. Some of our relationships have suffered. … There’s a frustration among our clients.”

Canada’s statistical agency is tasked with producing quality data and analysis about the country on everything from oil exports to jobless rates, food prices and health outcomes. That mandate, Mr. Smith said, is at risk as tech glitches – stemming partly from a lack of maintenance at its data centre – have caused delayed releases, lost time in conducting quality assurance and higher costs.

The CBC carried Jordan Press' Canadian Press article "StatsCan looking for powers to make all surveys mandatory, compel data from companies".

Statistics Canada is privately floating the idea of new powers that would make all of its surveys mandatory by default and force certain companies to hand over requested data, such as credit card transactions and Internet search records.

Currently, the agency can ask for any information held by governments and businesses, but officials have long found it hard to get information like point-of-sale transactions that could give a more detailed and accurate picture of household spending.

The agency's proposal would compel governments and companies to hand over information, and levy fines to discourage "unreasonable impositions" that "restrict or prevent the flow of information for statistical purposes."

Corporate fines would depend on a company's size and the length of any delays. The changes would also do away with the threat of jail time for anyone who refuses to fill out a mandatory survey, such as the long-form census.

The recommendations, contained in a discussion paper Statistics Canada provided to The Canadian Press, would enshrine in law the agency's independence in deciding what data it needs and how to collect it.

In the National Post, John Robson's "When statisticians corrupt" counsels against this extension.

Lord Acton famously warned that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Even, it turns out, Statistics Canada.

Now you laugh. But my colleague Kevin Libin just wrote about how Canada’s statistical agency, giddy with success in having the mandatory long-form census restored, now wants all sorts of power to compel you to reveal your intimate secrets or lack of same.

I don’t want to be seen mocking statisticians as good at math but without the personality to be accountants. Especially not now. But it is hard to imagine a less menacing bunch than the geeks at Statistics Canada, whom I have always found obliging when seeking data on deadline. They wield spreadsheets in cubicles, not pistols in dank secret police HQ basements. Yet there they are, demanding the power to compel compliance, avoid scrutiny, even run their own computers to avoid depending on their wretched colleagues for tech support.

‘Twas ever thus in the executive branch. We know best (as Libin notes, Statistics Canada has elevated itself from a good number cruncher to “a key institution in the democratic process”) and should be freed from petty restraints on our capacity to act for the greater good. But why?

Well, in Acton’s and my vision of the political problem, we need the state and it needs extensive powers to protect our freedom. But anyone to whom we grant extensive powers is liable to intrude on our freedom because, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.”

That is where Canada is right now.

No comments: