It's hard to find a cheap datum
By DAVID AKIN
With all that's going on in the world, it may seem trivial to write about the
price of statistics -- Canadian statistics, no less. But some important Canadian
data are too expensive and that's harming our ability to create new jobs and new
wealth in the knowledge economy.
It's a good time to be thinking about the price of this data because we're
just at the beginning of a new census cycle. That
is, the census of Canada, an important undertaking
of the federal government to count just about anything worth counting in the
Letter to the editor
Re It's Hard To Find A Cheap
Datum by David Akin (April 3):
The article alleges that the data Statistics
Canada collect are viewed as a potential money-maker for the state. This is not
the case at Statistics Canada, which only recovers the cost of providing data
that are supplied for specialized private use.
The agency has, over many years, steadily increased the amount of data it
provides without charge, most notably since the introduction of the
A key objective of our data dissemination program is to have the widest
possible use of our information without charge. This is certainly the case for
the 2001 Census. In addition to our Web site, data
from the census and other statistical programs are
also made available without charge through Canada's network of more than 700
The agency does charge in certain cases. First, we charge for products we
would not produce if their cost were not recovered. Second, we charge for custom
services in which a data user requests a specific output to meet some individual
need. To do otherwise would be unfair to taxpayers at large.
Moreover, by adapting the electronic resources it uses to provide commercial
services, Statistics Canada has been able to offer more data at no cost to the
PODEHL, marketing and information services branch, Statistics
Last month, Statistics Canada released details on the population of Canada.
You'll recall the release was front-page news, mostly because the count showed
that Canada is growing at an anemic pace and some parts of the country, mostly
rural areas, are actually shrinking.
This information will play a central part in the forward planning of
organizations as diverse as municipal police departments, charitable
organizations and Fortune 500 multinationals.
But that was just the first statistical snapshot. Over the next year or two,
Statscan will release much more data from the 2001 census. Lots of that information will be made available for
free, but a great deal of important data, valuable to all sorts of organizations
across the country, will be made available only to those willing to pay a great
deal for it.
In fact, if you wanted to get detailed figures on household income, dwelling
type, education and other variables on a street-by-street, across-the-country
basis, you could pay Statscan more than $10,000 for the privilege.
By contrast, the same kind of data, with similar amounts of detail, for the
United States can be purchased from the U.S. Census Bureau for as little as $100.
But that's not all. There is also a great disparity between us and the U.S.
for the cost of digital versions of street maps. A Canadian set can cost as much
as $25,000 and will include only built-up, urban areas; a full set of U.S. maps,
including urban and rural areas, costs $2,000 (U.S.).
Having these two sets of data -- digital street maps and census data -- lets anyone with a personal computer and
some cheap software figure out how best to deploy scarce resources, find new
business opportunities, or conduct research into the ways Canadian society is
This data -- geographic locations and lists of things such as people and
houses -- is called geospatial data, and there's a small but thriving industry
of geospatial data users in Canada who are trying to push federal policymakers
toward the idea that raw data about our country ought to be made available for
as close as possible to free, and that such a policy would have immense benefits
for all of us.
In the U.S., data collected by the public's representatives -- the government
-- about the public are viewed as the public's good. The job of government, in
the U.S. at least, is to get this information into the hands of the public with
as little fuss as possible.
It feels different in Canada. The data collected by the public's
representative here are viewed as a potential moneymaker for the state, and
that's wrong. They're our data and our government ought to give them to us.
GeoConnections, a federally funded organization, commissioned a study last
year that examined Canada's geospacial data dissemination policies. The report,
prepared by KPMG Consulting for the GeoConnections committee, concluded that the
government does a poor job getting data it collects about the country into the
hands of those who could make some use of it. "Decisions are taken without using
the best available data because the cost of the data exceeds valuable budgets
and/or perceived value. In some instances, effective, timely and economic
decision-making is hindered. . . . The outcome is inferior decision-making in
both the public and private sectors."
This is important because the most senior members of the Chrétien government
have made it a priority to nurture a knowledge economy that generates wealth
from bits and bytes, yet the federal government is hoarding one of the most
precious resources to build a knowledge economy.
Some studies say that, for every dollar invested in distributing geospacial,
census-based data, users of that data generate $4
in growth, mostly by improved resource allocation.
KPMG had some common-sense proposals, the most sensible of which was this:
The main goal of Canada's data dissemination policies should be to increase the
use of the data. It should not be to balance a departmental budget or earn
revenue. A bureaucrat's success should be measured by the number of kilobytes
moved out the door, not by the size of a departmental bank balance.
The responding agencies -- Statscan et al. -- are still thinking about it.
David Akin is national business and technology correspondent for CTV News
and a contributing writer to The Globe and Mail.