It's hard to find a cheap datum

Wednesday, April 3, 2002 – Page A13

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 country.

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 organized.

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.