No mandatory census means no data quality

The Federal government’s recent decision to replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary household survey has serious implications on the quality of collected data that public and private sector organizations rely on, warns a veteran demographer with Pitney Bowes Business Insight.

The data collected through the mandatory long-form census has been invaluable in a variety of ways including to government agencies in creating new policy and with businesses to understand things like growth trends, said Toronto-based Tom Exter.
“Making that long-form voluntary really distorts the samples because the number of people goes down, and there is an unknown bias,” said Exter, who expresses his disagreement in a blog.

In June, Industry Minister Tony Clement announced he would stop the mandatory long-form census for 2011, citing privacy concerns given some questions were considered intrusive. In its place will be a voluntary National Household Survey. Meanwhile, the short-form census will continue to be compulsory and include basic questions such as the number of people residing in a home and their gender.
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A census that is mandatory provides a sample that is a “reasonable set of information” about a particular neighbourhood given it’s based on data collected from one in every five households, explains Exter.

Pitney Bowes Business Insight, itself, provides market intelligence to customers based on census data and other data sources. “Not having that (data) will have a huge impact on local governments, planning agencies, small businesses, and all industries of people who use that,” said Exter.

Asking citizens to voluntary fill out the census introduces a bias into the data making it no longer valuable, said Alison Brooks, director of public sector research with Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd.

You have a proclivity to answer the survey depending on whether you are keen on the government or not,” said Brooks.

Data management and quality is an area of increasing concern in government, further compounded by the fact that information is proliferating, said Brooks.

Private and public sector organizations that rely on such data sources in their business operations are worried, noted Brooks.

The Conservative government has said it will send out the voluntary survey to 60 per cent more households to compensate for the fact that it’s no longer mandatory. But Brooks doesn’t agree that approach will help, the “implications of which will only be discovered down the road.”

Exter agreed, saying the decision to send out the voluntary survey to more households reflects a misunderstanding about sampling and will not serve to increase validity of the data. “The size of a sample is not as important as how people were picked,” he said.

Sampling aside, Exter thinks the government’s concern for citizen privacy has no grounds because Statistics Canada goes to great lengths to protect the data it collects. “The privacy issue is a non-issue,” said Exter.

Brooks, too, finds “no logic” in the privacy complaints.

In July, the head of Statistics Canada Munir Sheikh resigned in opposition to the decision to replace the mandatory census.

Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau