May 7, 2013 1:16 pm
Updated: October 16, 2013 8:47 pm

As household survey replaces census, Statscan starts charging for data that used to be free

A Toronto woman will appear in court today for refusing to fill out the census because it's processed from U.S. military contractor Lockheed Martin.

Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press
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Not only are Canadians getting less reliable information as the National Household Survey replaces the long-form census, they also have to pay for information they used to get for free.

Census tract-level data – granular information giving a neighbourhood’s eye view of the country – was previously available on request. Now Statistics Canada will charge for it on a “cost-recovery basis,” said spokesman Peter Frayne.

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“Costs would vary according to the complexity of the request and the timelines and would have to negotiated,” he said in an e-mail Monday.

Frayne wouldn’t immediately say what other information this might apply to, although he added that “standard products which are currently free for self-serve on our website [such as CANSIM, sets of data tables Statscan recently made publicly available] will continue to be available without change.” But it isn’t clear whether 2011 versions of similar information – census profiles, for example – will be similarly accessible.

(asked for clarification Tuesday, Frayne said only “stay tuned for more information tomorrow”)

Just about anyone who measures anything about Canadians is watching Wednesday’s National Household Survey release, trying to gauge just how reliable its information will be.

While concerns over low response rates and selection biases seem wonky to some, the survey results could affect everything from flu shot clinics to retailer locations to government grants.

Toronto Public Health uses demographic information from the census “to understand basic characteristics of the population we serve,” said Paul Fleiszer, Manager of Surveillance and Epidemiology with the public health agency.

“Direct client services, for example, promoting healthy babies and positive parenting, uses information on how the population is distributed across the city to determine where staff should be mobilized,” he said in an email.

“In terms of healthy public policy, data on newcomers is used to advocate for broad systemic change to ensure basic prerequisites for health such as food security, affordable housing, access to childcare, meaningful employment and so on.”

Toronto Public Health is in wait-and-see mode as to whether it’ll use information from the national survey, and how much to rely on it.

“We should have a better handle on that after we’ve done our assessment of the NHS results for Toronto,” Fleiszer said. “In the worst case scenario, we will lose our ability to understand how things are changing over time.”

Metro Vancouver’s planning department is in the same boat. They’d normally use census information for everything from public transit to liquid and solid waste.

“We are curious to see the results of the National Survey, and concerned that our historic trend data and forecasting indicators may not fit well with existing methodologies,” Terry Hoff, a senior regional planner with Metro Vancouver, said in an e-mail.  “However, we will have to wait and see what we get.”

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a group that tends to advocate for government’s pecuniary prudence, also relied on the long-form census: “It’s an integral resources of accurate, unbiased information to help understand the Canadian economy,” the federation’s Nick Bergamini said in an e-mail. “We’ll have to use the National Household Survey going forward but it’s not clear that the results of the survey will be as accurate or as comprehensive as the long-form census.”

Interactive: Explore the data desk’s neighbourhood-level look at Canada’s changing population

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