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.