Statcan chief: Agency can't back down from push for new data sources

OTTAWA — Statistics Canada won't back down from a push to find new sources of data to fuel the nation's thirst for information, but will only move as quickly as Canadians are comfortable, the country's chief statistician says.

Anil Arora said his agency needs to do a better job of telling the country why it needs information and how it protects data after blowback from a proposal to collect banking information from 500,000 Canadians.

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Statistics Canada has pressed pause on the pilot project until the end of a review by the federal privacy watchdog.

In the meantime, Arora said the agency will look for other ways to feed growing data needs by tapping non-traditional sources of information.

"We are one of the best statistical agencies in the world not because we hold back," Arora said in an interview after his morning address.

"We (will) move at the pace at which society is accepting of the trade-offs that are there, and we need to do a better job of explaining to Canadians...the checks and balances that are in place, the complex systems that we built over 100 years to protect their privacy."

Statistics published by the agency are used to set interest rates on loans and mortgages, help local planners decide where to place new schools or hospitals, and set the value of federal seniors benefits like old age security.

But the data underpinning the agency's findings has started to become problematic and its methods are now embroiled in a political fire fight over privacy concerns.

For years, Statistics Canada has relied on Canadians to fill out surveys, some onerously time-consuming, to tell policy-makers things like how quickly the economy is growing, or changes in the cost of consumer goods.

Response rates have fallen as fewer people respond to surveys or screen out callers. This has increased the agency's reliance on "big data" sources, which has frayed nerves within the civil service that governments will rely solely on these sources for guidance.

Lower costs and better data quality prompted the agency to reach, under the previous Conservative government, for more administrative data compiled by other organizations, such as the banking information.

The new data sources are aimed at identifying long-term trends or tackle high-priority political issues like household debt, which was the subject of a now-suspended project to get 15 years of credit history from TransUnion.

Arora acknowledged Thursday at a conference marking the agency's centenary that Statistics Canada is not immune to a global decline in citizens' trust in institutions and experts. In his morning speech, he said it is the agency's job to prove why it should be trusted and its duty to "differentiate fact from myth."

"More often than not, we've got it right and have done a great job of maintaining Canadians' trust," Arora said in his speech.

"The trust Canadians have in our statistics is not only important for a national statistical office, it is crucial and embedded in the principles of official statistics and without it...we can't obtain the data that we need to produce good statistics on and for the population."

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