This week’s map visualizes Canada’s unemployment rates for October 2014, which were announced last week:
I coded this map with trepidation since comparing unemployment rates across provinces isn’t always as important as considering one province’s current rate against its own historic numbers. For example, this map shows us that Ontario’s unemployment rate still lags behind Alberta’s. No surprise there. What the map cannot do, though, is show that Ontario’s unemployment rate for this month – 6.5% – has finally recovered since the Sept 2008 crash. The last time Ontario’s unemployment rate was this low was in October 2008. To best visualize the province’s unemployment trend back to pre-recession numbers, one should simply chart the data, or even just give the real numbers in tabular format. The best way to do this on the web is with charts.js, which seems to be some of the easiest coding I’ve ever seen. That will be my project for later this week.
This week, I’ve taken the same population density variable I used last week and plotted it for Brantford, Ontario. I’ll be speaking about open StatCan data to our journalism students in Brantford in a few days’ time, so it was only fair to plot the same variable for our students in this city, too.
One of my sidebar projects this fall has been to get back into mapping socio-economic data. This is something I used to do quite a bit four years ago (these maps have sadly succumbed to linkrot and plugin abandonment). Projecting numeric data onto maps is easier than most people think, and ever since I moved to a new city in 2013, I planned to pick up this skill again to learn a few things about my new town. And as a data librarian, I know where to find and work with census data, so it was easy to kickstart things into gear once more.
The interesting thing about this map isn’t so much its colorful polygons, (based on statistics anyone can download here) but the tools I used to build it. When I was creating maps in 2010, the average person who wanted to hack something out was limited largely to using Arc on his or her campus, or using the open source (and still maturing) variant, QGIS, or working with Google Maps. These days, QGIS is very mature and has a strong developer community, GMaps is still going strong, and users can use services such as Mapbox’s TileMill. The options to choose from are stronger, and there is an option that can meet your background, whatever it may be.
As an example, I’m linking over to Mita Williams’s recent work mapping population change in Windsor, Ontario, as well as making the case for electoral change in her hometown. Mita is a UX librarian and far more of a coder than I’ll ever be, so her recent work with maps shows a freer hand at hacking out java to make things go, while I use plugins within QGIS to automate some of the coding for me, which frees up my time to spend on analysis.
At the end of the day, our maps are projected with the same code and with data from the same datasets, so our endpoint is the same, but the tools we’ve chosen to use may be better suited to our own particular abilities. That is something I didn’t see in 2010 as much as I see today. And that change is a good thing. Getting these datasets into the hands of the masses, and then making them usable and understandable for everyone, is crucial to the precepts of openness – open access, open government, open data – that we espouse as librarians. One can have completely open access to data, but its value is lessened when it cannot be used or understood by all of society. Yes, open data is a crucial part of today’s citizen-to-citizen and citizen-to-government relationships, but the more tools people have to work with that data, the better.
This week, in the middle of Open Access Week, the Canadian Library Association issued a statement criticizing the government cuts that have been made to Statistics Canada in recent years. This critique is strongly worded and it packs a punch; I expect it to gain traction beyond our regular librarian circles.
But getting the word out cannot happen without your help. Read the statement and share it with your colleagues and friends, especially with people outside of your typical library and archives networks. To make the case that StatCan is not just a numbers factory but a social barometer for the nation, we must extend our voice. We must be on point, and we must persuade.
I have copied the text of the statement from the original PDF in order to help circulate this statement. When you share, please link to the original document or to www.cla.ca.
Cuts to Statistics Canada are Harming Canadians October 23, 2014
The Canadian Library Association / Association canadienne des bibliothèques (CLA/ACB) is the national voice for Canada’s library communities.
Canadians know that access to reliable and high quality information, from the widest variety of points of view, is critical to a prosperous, functioning and democratic society. The decisions that citizens, communities, and governments make are better informed and have the ability to be more innovative when there is a free exchange of ideas facilitated by open and equal access to information. It is with these values in mind that CLA responds to recent and ongoing changes at Statistics Canada.
Recent programme cuts and policy changes at Statistics Canada have made it more difficult than ever for Canadians to track changes to critical issues that affect their communities, such as unemployment rates or the education of our children. The replacement of the mandatory long-form census with the National Household Survey, at a significantly greater cost, and the cancellation of many social surveys has made it increasingly challenging, if not impossible, for municipalities, hospitals, schools, and government agencies to administer social programmes and to track their success. In some cases, municipalities are financing their own surveys to gather the critical data they once had access to through StatCan. StatCan cuts and changes are continuing to impede effective planning for all agencies, making future programming a costly gamble. Additionally, with all levels of government focused on social and economic innovation, it is imperative that municipalities have the ability to look back on trends in order to plan for the future with reliable data.
Statistics Canada withering on the vine
Budget cuts have affected Statistics Canada enormously, which in turn affects all Canadians and all levels of government. While StatCan extended a lifeline to surveys and tools that tracked the nation’s economy through these cuts, it did so at the great expense of its social surveys, where significant budget reductions to the agency and ill-advised policy changes to its census program created major gaps that cannot be filled.
Canadians have forever lost valuable research that affects their communities as a result of cancellations of and cuts to surveys such as:
The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, which followed the development and well-being of Canadian children from birth to early childhood
The Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics, which provided valuable insight into the financial situation of Canadian families
The Workplace and Employment Survey, which examined employer and employee issues affecting the Canadian work place, such as competitiveness, technology, training, and job stability.
Canadians and their communities are now suffering the consequences of budget cuts and policy changes at Statistics Canada. Major, long-standing surveys that paint a dynamic picture of Canadian society have been eliminated, making it nearly impossible to do year-over-year comparisons and to track the changes in social data and programs over time. It is hard to imagine less responsible measures in the age of open data, open government, and evidence-based policy-making than limiting the supply of data or replacing it with inferior products.
In the context of fiscal responsibility, CLA believes that the government can be much more effective at planning and supporting sound planning. The current government is determined to balance the books and bring Canada into an environment of economic prosperity and growth. In order to plan for these outcomes, careful public spending is dependent on correct information to inform decisions. Statistics Canada has long been the core agency for Canada’s ability to plan and spend carefully at all levels of government, and within the business and not-for-profit sectors. CLA believes that without consistent and reliable data, this ability will be lost.
The CLA urges the government to return Statistics Canada to its status as one of the world’s most respected National Statistical agencies by restoring its funding and the long-form census. The CLA urges the government to provide Statistics Canada with the support it needs to collect, analyze, and publish data that has proven, longstanding value for decision-makers, communities, and Canadians alike.
The Canadian Library Association/Association canadienne des bibliothèques (CLA/ACB) is the national voice for Canada’s library communities, representing the interests of libraries, library workers, and all those concerned about enhancing the quality of life of Canadians through information and literacy. CLA/ACB represents 1410 library workers, libraries and library supporters; and Canadian libraries serve in excess of 34 million Canadians through the nation’s public, school, academic, government and special libraries.
For more information, please visit
Valoree McKay, CAE
613-232-9625 x 306
It’s that time of year when more and more students are asking about accessing datasets for their research through our local Research Data Centre. And a couple times now, I’ve found myself having to explain that one does not simply walk into an RDC…
One of the things I’m constantly doing as a government documents librarian is giving lessons on Statistics Canada geographic areas. Census geographies can be downright confusing to the new user (and to sometimes to the seasoned expert!). The names are riddled with acronyms and jargon, and their relationships to other areas and spaces can be complicated. One legally incorporated township may be considered a census subdivision while another may be classified as only a census agglomeration. Another city may be classified as a census subdivision, and also be part of a census metropolitan area of a similar name, e.g., Toronto CSD and Toronto CMA. Or, a city may be classified as a census subdivision and exist not only in a CMA with a similar name, but also a census division (I’m looking at you, City of Waterloo CSD, Waterloo Region CD, and Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo CMA). And if you dare introduce census tracts the first time through, your short introduction to the “Russian dolls” nature of census geographies runs the risk of turning your lesson into an information dump about privacy and data validity when all that your first-year economics student wanted to know was why it’s so hard to get comparable income and migration numbers for Kitchener, Ontario, and The Pas in northern Manitoba.
Confusion abounds. One of the problems we encounter are the tools we use to explain these geographies, which should be easily understood but are often abstract – we may live in towns and cities, but we refer to them as census agglomerations or CMAs. What can you use to show how spaces relate to one another, or how certain concepts can be measured and expressed spatially? The answer is a map, of course. God lov’em, those maps. Maps help us express numbers – quantities, amounts, rations, proportions – with colours and shapes, and in the regions we live in and travel through each day. Face it, “big data” wouldn’t be as big as it is today if we didn’t have “big maps” to help use make sense of the numbers. However, StatCan’s digitized maps are large, layered PDFs that aren’t always user-friendly. The Standard Geographical Classification (SGC) PDFs are great reference items, but they aren’t very accessible. And this creates a learning gap for so many of our users.
To overcome this gap, I’m constantly pulling out the old SGC print maps, and I’m also cutting and pasting and hacking together magnified screenshots of the PDFs into my slide deck. Typically, if you need census help and you’ve found me in person, then there stands a good chance that I’m going to crack open the SGC and unfold a map somewhere in the office (I even keep the southern Ontario CD-CSD map posted to a wall). I started doing this last Spring after I moved to Waterloo and had to learn the region’s geography and confirm its census divisions, subdivisions, and CMAs for myself, and I realized this was a simple and effective tool that should be used more often, especially with new StatCan users.
Typically, I bring students to a nearby conference room and unfold the map on a large table. I find that being able to “walk around” the entire map and point to the places where the lines that signify the different geographies merge, separate, and then merge again, helps students understand some of the logic behind the regions (at least in terms of distance and population). They may not always be able to recall all the differences between a census division, subdivision and metropolitan area after a session, but they at least remember that there are differences, and these differences are important enough to affect their research.
The classroom is a different story, though. When working with only one person or a small group, there is a persuasive element at work that captures everyone’s attention. Carefully unfolding and presenting a map to a small group of people is like opening a box that holds a surprise. (Let’s call this surprise “knowledge” and we’ll call ourselves awesome for charming our audience so handily into learning something). But if we take that same map into the classroom or lecture hall, it risks becoming an awkward, cumbersome prop. It can become a distraction or even a failed means to demonstrate your expertise in such a short time to such a large group of people.
Maps that unfold to become wider and taller than you put the room’s attention onto your map-wrangling skills (however good or poor they might be) instead of on the knowledge you have share, so I avoid them. You’ve never caught me walking to a classroom with a print map, and I doubt many other librarians do that today.
Instead, I give the class what they want and what they expect, and that means I work that map into my PowerPoint deck. Any time I’m introducing StatCan resources and geographies to a class, I insert three images of the same PDF map, each one magnified more than the last. This helps people “zoom in” with their eyes and see the many relationships and regions that are defined in one place alone. The length of time I spend on these slides depends on the classroom’s needs: sometimes, I spend only a few moments on these slides, and other times, I’ll spend five or ten minutes. What matters is that after I’ve finished up and am headed back to the office, I know that the instructor can pass around a slide deck that always refers to all these different areas.
I know I’m not presenting anything new in this post: maps have long been a tremendous tool within government documents librarianship. Perhaps the takeaway lies more in information literacy than it does anywhere else. Is your digital resource, as presented to you, the best way to help the user understand the resource? You may want to turn to the print resource or manipulate the digital resource, as I do with StatCan maps, to improve learning and synthesis. It’s just one more tool (or two, in this case) in our IL toolbox.
A few years ago, I designed a few rudimentary Google maps of Halifax from StatCan data. This was before I really knew anything about stats and data (n.b. I still don’t think I know much more than “some things” about stats and data), licenses, and how to properly interpret them. One map that I created showed Halifax’s population change, tract by tract, from 2001 to 2006. I’m giving myself embarrassment cringes by linking to it, but all the same: view it here.
Of note: the suburbs clearly rule the roost when it comes to Halifax’s population changes from 2006 to 2011. The only tract on the peninsula showing a significant increase (i.e., over 11.9%) is Tract 2050019.00, in the middle of the peninsula. The increase in this tract is due, I’m certain, to the Gladstone redevelopment, the first major phases of which were completed – if memory serves me correct – in 2007 or 2008.
For what it’s worth, I’m not sure if I’m going to build a google map from 2011 census tract data. The work is time-consuming and there are other people in my field who have the expertise and software to do a much better job than I can. (And besides, my own hobby at the moment has more to do with plotting historic maps with Google Earth!) My work finding socio-economic data, making the odd remark here and there, and helping others make sense of it, is enough work – and fun – for one person. 🙂
Finally, here are a few outbound links to keep you interested:
This is the last release of longitudinal data from the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics. Effective with next year’s release of 2011 data, only cross-sectional estimates will be available. [source] [PDF]
There has been a flurry of comments in various corners of the Internet about this cancellation. Some people see this as an outright cost-cutting measure, while others consider it in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, e.g., where should StatCan put its limited resources, staff, and funds? I have my opinions – it’s not good a idea to let this whither on the vine – but I’ll leave it up to you to decide how to to consider this action.
I will, however, draw your attention to two posts by Canadian academics who know a thing or two about socio-economic data and the mechanics of longitudinal surveys:
Miles Corak writes a nice eulogy for the SLID, but his main point lies in the constraints that StatCan‘s longitudinal surveys face. long-term funding of such surveys are not always clear since they are administered by a creature of government:
At Statistics Canada funding is annual, subject to the trade-offs in managing a whole portfolio of statistical products. It is also dependent upon financial support and direction from particular government departments whose interests and priorities ebb and flow, and are tied to broader government objectives.
. . .
In a recent interview the current Chief Statistician of Australia, Brian Pink, made a revealing and important comment: “Neither the Treasurer nor Prime Minister can tell me how to go about my business. They can tell me what information to collect, but they can’t tell me how to do it, when to do it or how often to do it.”
But it is telling that the Australian longitudinal labour market survey—The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey—which was started in 2001 and has guaranteed funding for 12 years, is not being run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics but rather by an institute at the University of Melbourne.
The current Chief Statistician of Canada is in a more challenging position. He also has the responsibility to manage surveys that form no part of Mr. Pink’s mandate, surveys whose value is in the long-term, much longer than a fiscal year, and even longer than an electoral cycle.
As Canadians embark on another experiment in longitudinal survey taking they should have confidence that Statistics Canada will design and manage the technical details in an efficient, effective, and indeed innovative way; but past experience, both here and abroad, may also make them wonder if the managerial structure and financial responsibility is designed to match the long-term horizon these data require. [source]
Corak, I think, is asking us to consider if it’s time for other agencies to administer longitudinal surveys in Canada (at the very least, he’s making the observation that things are done differently in other countries). Blayne Haggart puts it in very plain terms:
[Corak] argues that the real problem may be that, as a government agency with a one-year budget horizon subject to political whims, Statistics Canada isn’t the best placed agency to handle projects with time horizons that stretch beyond electoral cycles into decades. This means that even throwing the bums out wouldn’t solve the underlying problem. New boss, meet old boss and all that. [source]
As for me, it’s too early to decide. I’m not sure what yet to think. I definitely have dogs in this race, but I’m not yet in a position to agree or disagree worth Corak and Haggart. My preference is to have well-funded government statistical agencies who collect and disseminate socio-economic data, and to have well-funded government knowledge centres (e.g., LAC) that can improve the preservation of and access to government information. But on the question of longitudinal studies, perhaps Corak and Haggart’s opinions have enough merit for us to have a discussion on whether Canadian not-for-profits and university research centres should make a big step forward and take a decisive lead in the future.
This has not been a good spring for Canadian librarians and archivists, especially those who work at federal libraries and archives, which are being de-funded and dismantled by federal budget cuts. These information centres sustain government and public research capacity. Their ability to create, preserve, and provide access to public information in our country is at risk.
These cuts, and the centres and programmes in jeopardy, include:
April 13, 2012 – Publishing and Depository Services (i.e., Publications Canada, DSP) announces that beginning in 2014, it will no longer publish government information in print format, which ostensibly “aligns with the Government of Canada’s greening government initiatives” [PDF] but in practice jeopardizes access to government information in public and academic libraries from coast to coast.
April 13, 2012 – Statistics Canada announces that it will formally close E-STAT in 2013 [PDF]. This is acceptable in most quarters since CANSIM statistics are now free for public use on StatCan’s website, but many librarians are appropriately wondering what the decline of this relatively easy-to-use socio-economic database and its simplified outputting functions for charts and tables means for teachers, students, and first-time users of statistics.
I’m missing some announcements since I was away when so many of these cuts were announced, but this list nonetheless clarifies the seriousness of the situation. In the space of a few weeks, the federal government has severely hampered the nation’s ability to gather, document, use, and disseminate government and cultural information.
You can learn what many of these cuts mean in clear, practical terms by reading this post written by my archivist friend, Creighton Barrett, at Dalhousie University’s Archives and Special Collections. Creighton explains how these cuts negatively affect the university’s ability to collect and maintain the records used by scholars and citizens in one community alone, and rightly notes that they are a “devastating” blow to information access in Canada. Now, consider how Creighton’s list grows when you add to it the ways in which these same cuts affect the libraries and archives in your own community, and then all other libraries and archives in Canada. And we haven’t even touched what these broader cuts mean for LAC’s programming and resources, StatCan programming, and the research capacity of federal departments and agencies. “Devastating,” may well be an understatement in the long run.
These budget cuts are a knock-out punch to how public information is accessed and used across the country. The cuts not only affect the library community and possibly your civil-service-friend who lives down the road. They will affect the manner in which our society is able to find and use public information. If public data is no longer collected (see StatCan), preserved (see LAC, NADP, CCA), disseminated and used (see PDS/DSP and cuts at departmental libraries), then does the information even exist in the first place? There will be less government and public information, fewer means to access this information, and fewer opportunities to do so.
Take a moment and recall the freedom you have been afforded to speak freely in this nation. The utility of that freedom is dependent on your ability to access the information you use to learn, to criticize, to praise, or to condemn. If knowledge is power, then a public whose national information centres and access points are ill-funded is a weakling. Libraries and archives provide Canadians with direct access to key government information, and for that very reason, they should be funded to the hilt.
This is where I get to my point: We are now facing a situation in Canada where government information has suddenly become far more difficult to collect, to access, and to use. The funding cuts that Canada’s libraries and archives face is an affront to the proper functioning of a contemporary democratic society. These cuts will impede the country’s ability to access public and government information, which will make it difficult for Canadians to criticize government practices, past and present.
I mentioned on Twitter that these cuts show us that the work of librarians and archivists are crucial to the nation’s interest. We are not mere record keepers, and neither do we spend our days merely dusting cobwebs off of old books. We are the people who maintain collections of public information, and we are the people who provide and nurture access to information. Many of us see ourselves as guardians of the public’s right to access information. If we take on that guardianship, then we must defend and protect these collections and access points. I’m not talking about a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 job. I’m talking about advocacy, which doesn’t have an on/off switch. Either you do it or you don’t.
So, what should you do? Get informed, speak up, and act. Write letters to the editor. Write to your professional associations and other like-minded organizations; lend them your support, and when needed, tell them to add force to their own statements. Write to your MPs, to other MPs (especially to MPs who sit on government benches), to cabinet members, and to the PMO. When you’re socializing with friends who aren’t librarians and archivists, mention how our work affects their work and their personal lives. Massive cuts to the nation’s libraries and archives do not serve the public good. These cuts may help balance the financial books, but they create an information deficit that inhibits research, stymies dialogue and criticism, and makes government more distant from the people.
I’m not going to speak much about the Long-Form StatCan fiasco that the Tories have created this summer because so many other people and news organizations are covering it so well. David Eaves and Datalibre.ca have strong commentary and lists of organizations against it. The Globe and Mail and The National Post have both kept their attention on the issue, too. Aside from the fact that great resources already exist on this file, I haven’t offered my thoughts on it yet because so much of the issue lies in rhetoric, ideology, and politics.
The Conservative Party of Canada, in its role as government, can if it so desires tell Statistics Canada to ditch the long form. And Munir Sheikh, as the former director of StatCan, protests the only way he could by tendering his resignation. Sheikh, like a proper civil servant, spoke truth to power and should be commended for it. On these points, most people will agree.
If the Conservatives really do believe that the Long Form issue is about compelling citizens to offer information to the government under threat of a prison term (as PMO spokesman Dmitri Soudas keeps saying, as wannabe PM Maxime Bernier keeps suggesting, and as Tony Clement, I suspect, has been ordered to continually argued), then all the government must do to rectify this is change the StatCan Act so that individuals would be rewarded instead of punished for filing the long form. I won’t take credit for this idea, since I’ve heard it several times in the media in the past week: Offer a $20 tax credit upon completion and submission of the long form. Anyone who has filed income taxes will appreciate the idea of a tax credit, and anyone who has filed income taxes also knows that a $20 credit does not equal $20 in tax savings, either. This incentive could be a win-win for all parties.
As for the second-most argued point of contention about the long-form – whether or not the government should collect what might be privileged, personal data, e.g., what time you go to work in the morning, how many bedrooms are in the house, I think the CPC is making political hay. What’s important is not how many bedrooms I, Michael Steeleworthy, possess (2), whether I rent or own (rent), or what time I go to work in the morning (between 8 and 830, depending on the time I wake up). What matters is the aggregate data that comes of it. No one is ever going to look at my own data to compromise my privacy – the government has not enough time on its hands to snoop into such arcane matters and has more important things to do. And frankly, StatCan data is closely guarde Its data is not freely available to the public, and its original files are kept under lock and key; not even Misters Harper, Soudas, Clement or Bernier could access my census form. Really, if the government is keen on turning themselves into libertarian ideologues instead being the administrators of representative governance when it comes to the issue of data collection, then it should also stop collecting income taxes at CRA, and as Dan Gardner noted in the Ottawa Citizen, it better bow out of FINTRAC as soon as possible, since if there was ever an Orwellian “spy-on-your-neighbour organization out there”, this is the one.
What’s more, if the CPC is bothered by the collection of information, it may as well shred its own database of party members, which is a storehouse of information that their grassroots base would presumably disagree with (if the current CPC rhetoric about data collection is to be believed) in the first place. Dear Stephen Harper, I’ve heard that teaching by example is the best way to give a lesson, so let’s start this Data Collection Disruption at home and send the CPC’s own files to the great Shredder in the sky.
Snarky comments aside, the long form issue is a political issue, and I don’t see the CPC moving back from it. I may be wrong – I’m not a seasoned political observer, I’m only a fairly bright fellow living on the east coast. But one thing is clear: in the tradition of one-time Ontario PC Minister of Education John Snobelin (cf. Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution; Snobelin served alongside Ministers Clement and Flaherty, I might note), the best way to create change in government is to create a crisis. And that’s what’s happened with the Long Form. The CPC has created a crisis. Even if Stephen Harper, through Tony Clement, were to suddenly make peace and reach for consensus, they will have shifted the status quo closer toward their own political ideology.