Latest batch of census information thrills ‘data geeks’

OTTAWA — The first tranche of fresh, new census data is coming out this week, and Ted Hildebrandt is giddy with anticipation.

OTTAWA — The first tranche of fresh, new census data is coming out this week, and Ted Hildebrandt is giddy with anticipation.

The director of social planning for Community Development Halton has been relying on the 2006 census data to figure out how to make Burlington, Ont., more receptive to seniors — determining where they live, how quickly they’re aging, and what kind of services are lacking at the community level.

The data provides invaluable information about affordable housing, immigrants, poverty, income levels, who lives alone, who works and who doesn’t. But it’s five years old, and Hildebrandt can hardly wait for a brand new set of numbers.

“I’m a data geek,” Hildebrandt said. “Of course I’m excited.”

Every five years, people living in Canada are systematically counted and questioned in a process that is so much more than a simple tally.

Since 1666, when Jean Talon conducted the country’s first census himself by going door to door in New France to count 3,215 people, enumerators have used data produced from the count to paint a textured portrait of Canada.

The census attempts to tell Canadians not only how many we are, but also who we are — about our housing, our origins, our religion, our habits, our work and our quality of life.

It is so central to our daily lives that when news of Stephen Harper’s decision to cancel the long-form portion of the census broke in the dog days of the summer of 2010, it became a national scandal. Community development groups, charities, academics, municipalities, researchers and think-tanks came out of the woodwork in droves to proclaim the importance of the data.

The information gleaned from the count influences everything from the number of government representatives to where playgrounds are located, whether retirement residences are built, and even whether we go to church on Sunday.

On Wednesday, Statistics Canada publishes the bare basics: population counts, how many people live in Canada’s cities and rural areas, which areas are growing and which regions are stagnating.

Other information will trickle out over the coming year, with age and sex of the population coming in May, followed by details on family structure, households and language in the fall.

Normally, the second year of releases contains intricate details from questions on the long-form census. But now that the long form has been cancelled and replaced with a voluntary survey, data-watchers are leery about how useful and how pertinent the new information will be.

The short-form contains the same questions as always, about sex, age, marital status, family members living in the same house, and connections to the farm. There is also a new question about language, added after the government ran into legal issues by cancelling the long form.

But the long form — with its queries about disability, immigration history, education, unpaid housework, labour market activities, religious affiliation, housing and so on — no longer exists.

Most of those questions have been asked in the National Household Survey instead, but researchers fear the results will not be comparable to census data collected in the past, nor will they be comprehensive enough to drill down to the local level.

“How accurate and local will it be? Will it be useful at local neighbourhood levels?” asked Hildebrandt. “That’s the kind of stuff that makes the work we do so very powerful.”

Examples of creative census use are myriad.

For the United Church of Canada, the census data has been the backbone of a massive project to revive and grow its congregations.

From the 2001 census, church executives knew that 3 million Canadians identified themselves as affiliated with the United Church. But they could only track about 500,000 of them showing up on any given Sunday.

“For every person in a pew on Sunday morning, there are 10 more within a five-kilometre radius,” said Rob Dalgleish, who co-ordinates the renewal program at the United Church of Canada.

So, working with Environics Analytics and adding in some that firm’s own research, they looked to the 2001 and 2006 census data to find out what kind of people were attending their churches, and where other people just like them were hiding.

With church attendance generally in a long-term decline, Dalgleish said the United Church wants to make sure they are connecting with their current congregations and also reaching out to the right people in a bid to bring them in.

“We tend to be quite disconnected from the communities we serve,” he said.

A few churches recently got together and, armed with their demographic analysis, wrote up a finely-tuned pamphlet suggesting families come join them for a Christmas service. They dropped off their flyers around the community and called it a day. Fifty families showed up — a landslide in church attendance circles.

They thanked God, of course. But they also thanked the census.

“It’s the power of knowing who you are talking to,” said Dalgleish. “It’s startling.”

Businesses often rely on census-related data to figure out where to expand, and even what kinds of goods and services to carry. That’s because the census has key information about population diversity and immigration, said Doug Norris, a former senior census official with Statistics Canada who is now the chief demographer for Environics Analytics.

Municipalities are also major users of the data to determine where new facilities should be built and infrastructure is needed.

Libraries have been known to look to the census to figure out what kind of books to carry.

Canadian Blood Services has relied on census data, augmented with other studies, to set up new mobile clinics in an attempt to tap into younger, growing communities full of potential new donors.

And Ottawa researcher Tracey Lauriault has built an “atlas” of the risk of homelessness based on patterns of housing revealed in the government data.

The primary purpose of a census, however, is to fulfil its constitutional mandate as a factual base for proportional representation and legislation, said Lauriault, an open-data advocate and analyst.

The population data released this week will determine how much provinces receive from the federal government in transfer payments. It will also inform riding boundaries.

And the numbers are central to the day-to-day functioning of the Immigration Act, employment equity, Canada Student Loans, the Multiculturalism Act, Old Age Security, the Canada Pension Plan, housing programs, the Official Languages Act, the Child Tax Benefit, and numerous social programs, Lauriault has found.

“The census,” she said, “is the place to go.”

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