Your Government Just Got Dumber: how it happened and why it matters to you

This piece was published in the Globe and Mail today so always nice when you read it there and let them know it matters to you.

Last week the Conservative Government decided that it would kill the mandatory long census form it normally sends out to thousands of Canadians every five years. On the surface such a move may seem unimportant and, to many, uninteresting, but it has significant implications for every Canadian and every small community in Canada.

Here are 3 reasons why this matters to you:

1. The Death of Smart Government

Want to know who the biggest user of census data is? The government. To understand what services are needed, where problems or opportunities may arise, or how an region is changing depends on having accurate data. The federal government, but also the provincial and, most importantly, local governments use Statistics Canada’s data every day to find ways to save tax payers money, improve services and make plans. Now, at the very moment – thanks to computers – governments are finding new ways to use this information more effectively than ever before, it is to be cut off.

To be clear this is a direct attack on the ability of government to make smart decisions. In fact it is an attack on evidence based public policy. Moreover, it was a political decision – it came from the Minister’s office and does not appear to reflect what Statistics Canada either wants or recommends. Of course, some governments prefer not to have information, all that data and evidence gets in the way of legislation and policies that are ineffective, costly and that reward vested interests (I’m looking at you Crime Bill).

2. The Economy is Less Competitive

But it isn’t just government that will suffer. In the 21st century economies data and information are at the heart of economic activity, it is what drives innovation, efficiencies and productivity. Starve our governments, ngo’s, businesses and citizens of data and you limit the wealth a 21st century economy will generate.

Like roads to the 20th century economy, data is the core infrastructure for a 21st century economy. While just a boring public asset, it can nonetheless foster big companies, jobs and efficiencies. Roads spawned GM. Today, people often fail to recognize that the largest company already created by the new economy – Google – is a data company. Google is effective and profitable not because it sells ads, but because it generates and leverages petabytes of data every day from billions of search queries. This allows it to provide all sorts of useful services such as pointing us, with uncanny accuracy, to merchandises and services we want, or better yet, spam we’d like to avoid. It can even predict when communities will experience flu epidemics four months in advance.

And yet, it is astounding that the Minister in charge of Canada’s digital economy, the minister who should understand the role of information in a 21st century economy, is the minister who authorized killing the creation of this data. In doing so he will deprive Canadians and their businesses of information that would make them, and thus our economy, more efficient, productive and profitable. Of course, the big international companies will probably be able to find the money to do their own augmented census, so those that will really suffer will be small and medium size Canadian businesses.

3. Democracy Just got Weaker

Of course, the most important people who could use the data created by the census aren’t government or businesses. It is ordinary Canadians. In theory, the census creates a level playing field in public policy debates. Were Statistics Canada website usable and its data accessible (data, may I remind you we’ve already paid for) then citizens could use this information to fight ineffective legislation, unjust policies, or wasteful practices. In a world where this information won’t exist those who are able to pay for the creation of this information – read large companies – will have an advantage not only over citizens, but over our governments (which of course, won’t have this data anymore either). Today, the ability of ordinary citizens to defend themselves against government and businesses just got weaker.

So who’s to blame? Tony Clement, the Minister of Industry Canada who oversees Statistics Canada, is to blame. His office authorized this decision. But Statistics Canada also shares in the blame. In an era where the internet has flattened the cost of distributing information Statistics Canada: continues to charge citizens for data their tax dollars already paid for; has an unnavigable website where it is impossible to find anything; and often distributes data in formats that are hard to use. In short, for years the department has made its data inaccessible to ordinary Canadians. As a result it isn’t hard to see why most Canadians don’t know about or understand this issue. Sadly, once they do wake up to the cost of this terrible decisions, I fear it will be too late.

7 thoughts on “Your Government Just Got Dumber: how it happened and why it matters to you

  1. WesternGrit

    Recall many a conversation with NeoCons/Reform-a-tories, on issues as diverse as immigration, crime and incarceration, womens' rights, etc. The typical Conservative retort to a quoted stat (from Stats Can) was always, “Stats are all b&ll$h!t… I can make them say whatever I want… Besides, Stats Can is just an arm of the Liberal Government”. This was not a “one off” conversation… It repeated itself almost any time you try to back up your argument with a Con with real evidence, as in stats, and key studies. For them, the best way to shut up any questioning with value (besides a pure, “black and white” “us or them”, “wid us or agin' us” debate), is to remove the most unbiased data collection mechanism we have. They know that it is a lot easier for corporations and governments to get more “favorable” info from private companies (the ones who really know how to supposedly “skew” the stats)…Let's look at that one point a little further: There is this wonderful claim that stats can be made to show people whatever you wish… Ummm… maybe to a limited extent. Phrasing of the question is very important – as is the demographic involved/media used (phone poll, “open” web poll, door to door survey, etc.). The actual opinion doesn't actually change. That variable is directly impacted by the question/questioner, but the way the result is interpreted, then read to the public is key. Take a poll of, oh, I don't know – intent to buy a home in the next 3 months. A newspaper can print banner glowing headlines about how 35% Of The Population Will Buy New Homes In The Next 3 Months”. The questions may be: Do you intend to visit a showhome in the next 3 months? 1) Most likely, 2) Not very likely, 3) No way in hell. In choosing to only discuss the 35% “most likely” to simply visit the showhome (not necessarily buy), then twisting the headline, the newspaper may be “pumping” their real estate advertisers (a big part of their revenue). They're not interested in the 65% who don't have any interest in a new home – or even browsing for one (an alternative headline could be: “65% Of Canadians Say “Not A Chance” To Buying A New Home”.Still… any knowledgeable reader can sift through the “chaff” in most polls, or at least question ones which don't seem credible. Unfortunately, those “knowledgeable” readers are a small part of the population. We still live in a world where people often blindly believe anything they see on a proported “news” show, or read in the paper… These people are the best “friends” of Conservatives, since they are more willing to not question, and often easier to sell the “junk media” ideas that the MSM will push (or which the gov't and corporate world pushes).

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  4. Herb Lainchbury

    Great points David. The cost recovery “business” model has unfortunately been widely adopted in the past decade or two as a way to offset costs of producing data. This model is flawed not only because as you rightly point out, the data has already been paid for, but also because it ignores the opportunity cost it creates. As I say in my Data Is Green post, our data is a resource that we spend a lot of time and effort creating and maintaining. Its a resource that has the wonderful property that it can be reused over and over again forever. To use it only once or to in any way inhibit the value that we can get from it is a waste.

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  5. Anonymous

    Re: Stats Canada’s website being unusable. I completely frickin agree. God. Has anyone in government actually tried to use that website? An econ professor gave our class an assigment last year that involved looking stuff up on Statscan. Half of our class failed the assignment because they gave up and the other half had the wrong data, but got the marks anyways for trying. I think he actually took that assigment off of the grading at the end. It’s a bloody gong show. And it feels like no one does anything about it because “that’s just how things are” with government. It’s depressing. And when we try (anti-HST petition), we’re just shuffled aside by big companies with really expensive legal teams. I applaud Vander Zalm. And this blog. Great post.

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