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Internal survey blasts feds for missing database: long-form census

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Treasury Board President Tony Clement speaks with the media about negotiations with the public service, Wednesday March 26, 2014 in Ottawa.The Conservative government has touted the thousands of databases it is making public as evidence of its openness and transparency. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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Treasury Board President Tony Clement speaks with the media about negotiations with the public service, Wednesday March 26, 2014 in Ottawa.The Conservative government has touted the thousands of databases it is making public as evidence of its openness and transparency. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - The Conservative government has touted the thousands of databases it is making public as proof of its openness and transparency.

But key data users in a Treasury Board survey complained about one giant database that has actually disappeared: the long-form census, killed by the Harper government in 2011 and again for the 2016 census.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement has repeatedly rebuffed complaints the government is opaque about information, citing in part its Open Government Action Plan, which includes the web posting of 200,000 data sets available for free download on data.gc.ca.

Last year, the department consulted more than 80 users in four cities about the website and its trove of newly released digital information — and heard widespread feedback about data missing because of the demise of the mandatory long-form census.

"At four of the five meetings, large numbers of stakeholders raised concerns about the termination of the mandatory long form census," says a report on the consultations, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The complaints echo an audit last week from the auditor general of Canada, who found the voluntary National Household Survey in 2011 cost taxpayers $22 million more than the mandatory long-form census it replaced — and produced far less reliable data.

Statistics Canada eventually withheld the release of survey data for one of every four municipalities and other census sub-divisions because of the poor quality of the numbers.

"As a result of data not being released due to quality concerns, potential users of this data for approximately 25 per cent of geographic areas do not have reliable National Household Survey data available for their use," said Michael Ferguson's report.

The Treasury Board's survey last year of data.gc.ca users adds fresh voices to the widespread condemnation of the Harper government's decision to kill the long-form census, a decision it says was made to protect citizens from state intrusion.

Clement himself attended at least one of the consulting sessions, in Ottawa a year ago.

The analysis, commissioned from Eaves Consulting Ltd. for $10,700, also blasted the website's dysfunctional search tool.

"Almost without fail, the single greatest complaint about the Federal Government's Open Data Portal was the quality of its search," says the document.

"Participants talked of searching for datasets they knew existed but could not find without typing an exact phrase or knowing a key term."

There were also complaints about the inadequacy of metadata and documentation, and the lack of answers or even acknowledgment when a user offered feedback through the site.

"Some stakeholders reported that this (lack of communication) caused users to lose confidence in the site and other features that required their input."

Eaves, which surveyed 82 people in Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Montreal over five meetings, said a common theme was the request for government data that was geographically tagged with key identifiers, such postal codes.

"Connecting data to geography is one of the most popular uses, both for analysis and application development," says the 13-page report from last June.

But users said they were spooked by a lawsuit launched by Canada Post against a small Ottawa company, Geolytica, claiming copyright on postal codes.

Through Geocoder.ca, Geolytica provides a downloadable database of postal codes that includes geographic boundary information. Canada Post launched its suit in March 2012, later claiming the phrase "postal code" is also a trademark.

"In addition to being a source of frustration and concern to researchers, many developers and private industry raised concerns about the 'chilling effect' (the lawsuit) was having on their desire to innovate with GC open data," says the report from Eaves Consulting, run by public-policy entrepreneur David Eaves.

The vast majority of datasets available on data.gc.ca are from Natural Resources Canada, representing 96 per cent of the 193,000 posted as of April 1. The department's vehicle fuel-consumption ratings database has been the most downloaded, more than 700 times.

Statistics Canada datasets are the next most common on the website, representing almost three per cent.

Treasury Board has since relaunched data.gc.ca, saying it has fixed most of the problems cited in the consultation sessions, including improved search functions and quality of metadata.

"All feedback provided on data.gc.ca is acknowledged and responded to via email within our service standard of 24 hours," added spokesperson Kelly James.

As of last week, the website offered 200,273 data sets from 38 government departments.

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