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Problems with using information

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Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write—H.G. Wells

The above quotation was recorded at the beginning of the 20th century, and few would disagree with its relevance today. Because the decisions that affect them are often based on some form of statistical information, Canadians need to be aware of the potential problems with gathering, understanding and presenting statistical data. No doubt the misuse of statistics, as well as other forms of information, factors heavily in the public's skepticism of the validity of some information.

This chapter will outline some of the problems you may encounter if you are not careful when using statistics.

The efficient and accurate use of information is handicapped by defects within the existing statistical structure. Sometimes, the required data do not exist. Similarly, data from different sources are not always comparable. Also, the quality of some information may need improvement. For these reasons, some uses of data may be limited or discouraged altogether.

There are many types of users who deal with statistical information in a number of different ways. With some foresight at the planning stage, the data can be made accurate, relevant and useful to an assortment of different users.

  • First, it is important to determine the end use for the data. For example, suppose that your municipality wants to evaluate where a new highway should be constructed. The highway planners would have to consider or gather several types of information. The planners may conduct environmental impact surveys or gather statistical information on average land costs (to anticipate expropriation costs), demographic patterns, construction and labour cost forecasts, and the number of local residents. Although this statistical information belongs to different sub-categories, the planners must ensure that the data are accurate and appropriate, and that they serve their ultimate purpose—finding the optimum location for the new highway.
  • Second, the timeliness of the data is also relevant. The type of data determines how frequently they are collected. Our national financial measures, such as gross domestic product, are collected four times a year, in quarters (each year is divided into four three-month segments). In contrast, the census—a comprehensive assessment of demographic information—is performed every five years because of its cost, scope and long-range view. Since data availability affects the reference period of a survey, then this factor must also be taken into consideration.
  • Third, classifying data users by the nature of their businesses is a useful exercise. This helps the statistician and the analyst to determine what kind of information is needed. Knowing who the users are, however, does not itself shed much light on the purposes or the manner in which the data will be used.
  • Finally, it is important for the user to understand the survey methodology, including the concepts and definitions. This will allow for a better understanding of the scope of the survey and how to use the data in an appropriate manner.