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New technology, questions under review as Statcan plans for future of census

Statcan looks at future changes to census

OTTAWA — With just days to go before the very first release of data from the 2016 census, there is an unusual calm outside Marc Hamel’s Statistics Canada office.

A calm before the storm, perhaps.

After all, Wednesday’s release will be watched closely by federal officials, demographers and urban planners — all of whom use the data to help political leaders make myriad decisions that affect the daily lives of Canadians.

This time around, however, some of the keenest observers will be census director Hamel and his staff, watching to see if their new census data-collection methods are hitting their mark.

Statistics Canada has been quietly working on a plan for 2026 to eliminate the mandatory short-form census that goes to every household, instead using existing government databases to conduct a virtual count of the population. The plan, if successful, could mean millions in savings for federal coffers.

The closer the census numbers are to the tests being conducted by Hamel’s team, the more likely that multiple pages of the census questionnaire will be dropped during the next count in 2021, or replaced altogether one day in the future with an electronic count of the population.

This year, for instance, the agency cut two pages about income from the long-form questionnaire and replaced the questions with readily available and, arguably, more reliable Canada Revenue Agency data. Other questions, too, will eventually be replaced with information from existing administrative databases, making it easier to collect the details that comprise the census portrait.

Hamel said the challenge for his staff is to find a way to accurately reflect the Canadian population as it is at any point in time.

“The census as we run it now is very high quality, so anything that we would come up with in the future would have to be as high quality as it is today,” said Hamel.

One particular challenge for an electronic census: address information in various administrative files doesn’t always correspond to where people actually live, making it hard to be confident people are being counted in the right places.

And what about technology?

The majority of Canadians filled out their census questionnaires online, cutting down the time required to input data, and helping to speed up the release of information. Hamel said there might be other technological changes coming for future censuses, but it’s hard to predict what that might entail when census day rolls around again in 2021.

The question that guides planning for the next census and beyond is simple: will this work the same way next time?

“Four years in census terms — for me anyway — it’s short. It’s not a long time to prepare to make sure that we get it right. But at the same time, from a technological point of view, it’s fairly long,” Hamel said.

“It’s always a bit difficult to predict how technology will evolve in a short period of time and how that might have an impact on how the census might be rolled out.”

The questions on the census are also likely to change by 2021, with consultations starting this fall on what things Statistics Canada should and shouldn’t be measuring any more. One question likely to change is about sex and gender, which this year didn’t include a third option for transgender Canadians, Hamel noted.

“Society keeps evolving, so I think that from a census point of view, the census questions and questionnaire should be evolving with it.”

— Follow @jpress on Twitter

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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