The Higher ED Blog: Counting matters
Tara Vinodrai and Markus Moos / October 13, 2015
This article is based on the authors’ essay ‘Do we still have quality data to study Canadian cities?’ in Canadian Cities in Transition: Perspectives for an Urban Age, edited by Pierre Filion, Markus Moos, Tara Vinodrai and Ryan Walker and published by Oxford University Press.
As we enter the last week of the Canadian federal election campaign, the Higher ED blog turns to an issue that is important to the everyday work and practices of economic developers and urban planners: data. Quality data of all sorts, whether qualitative or quantitative, are the foundation of sound research and public-policy decisions. Yet, issues around the quality and availability of social scientific data have hardly been front and centre in this election. After all, talking about data is not exactly headline news… usually. But, remember when the government made changes to the Canadian Census?
Sure, every household still has to fill out a short Census form providing some basic information about the members of their household. But the really important data, the data that helps us understand pressing issues in Canada, are compromised. The changes to how Statistics Canada collects data may have appeared largely technical on the surface: a simple shift from a mandatory long form survey (the Census long form) delivered to every fifth household to a voluntary form delivered to every third household (the National Household Survey, NHS). But, as many scholars have already noted, these are hardly trivial changes to how we count Canada’s population. Asking more households to voluntarily participate does little to address the issues at hand.
Fewer households responded to the 2011 NHS (68.6%, with widespread variation across municipalities) compared to the 2006 Census long form (93.5%). Lower response rates translate into poorer quality data and – in some cases – data not being available. Data has been suppressed for at least 12% of municipalities because of low response rates; this is higher when we look at specific variables, due to both data quality issues and the need to protect anonymity. However, worse than non-response is what is called non-response bias. There may be systematic groups of individuals that do not respond to the survey but we have no way of knowing who they are. Sending out more surveys does not solve non-response bias; hence the utility of a Census that surveys everyone. Non-response and non-response bias introduce two major challenges: 1) making comparisons over time; and 2) conducting analysis using small-scale geographies (such as small rural communities or inner city neighbourhoods). For example, our colleagues at the University of Toronto have demonstrated that, at the local level, income data from the NHS are far from reliable, despite official claims. And their groundbreaking research on poverty in Canadian cities has been stopped in its tracks.
Data from the Census is critical for understanding change in Canada’s cities, communities and neighbourhoods – large and small. In our recent book, Canadian Cities in Transition: Perspectives for an Urban Age, our contributors count on Census data to help us understand change across Canada – from coast to coast to coast. They explore questions about all facets of Canadian economy and society: immigration, affordability, inequality, housing, jobs, labour markets and other important issues; issues that are front and centre in this election. Issues where having quality data and evidence really counts, especially if we want to develop a deep understanding of the issues and make informed decisions about how to address them. And we aren’t alone in using Census data. On the ground in Canadian cities and communities, urban planners, economic developers, consultants, and policy-makers count on these data to improve our local communities every day.
Counting matters. How we count matters more. We are counting on the next government to reinstate the long form Census and support evidence-based decision making.
About the authors
Dr. Tara Vinodrai is Director of the Local Economic Development graduate program at the University of Waterloo. She is an expert on urban economies, regional development, innovation and clusters, and the creative/cultural economy. Follow her on Twitter @TaraVinodrai.
Dr. Markus Moos is Associate Director, Graduate Studies in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo. He is an expert on urban economies and his current research focuses on the #generationedcity, youthification, suburbanisms, housing, and sustainability. Follow him on Twitter @Markus_Moos.
About the series
Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.
Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.
The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.