Going paperless

August 20, 2014

When Jean Talon conducted the first Census in New France during the winter of 1665–1666, the story is that he personally walked around and knocked on doors. Talon conducted his census on the de jure principle—that is, counting people where they normally reside.

Fortunately, he only had 3,215 people to count.

While the population has grown, the de jure principle remains.

Luckily, today, you can sit on your backyard patio and input your census information on your tablet, phone or laptop. For the 2011 Census, close to 55% of Canadian households chose e-questionnaires to complete and submit their census information. That figure is expected to increase to 65% for the 2016 Census.

This is good news for Statistics Canada. The e-questionnaire is an efficient way to collect data. It is quick, accurate, confidential and environmentally friendly. It also provides a seamless connection to the huge number-crunching operations following each census or survey.

Lise Rivais, director of collection planning and research at Statistics Canada, spends a lot of time working on ways to lighten the burden Canadians feel when asked to complete survey forms. Over the next three years, her team will be guiding the agency to a largely paperless system that will both lessen the burden for respondents, and use technology to produce data more efficiently.

"We have hundreds of surveys that we conduct in a given year. Obviously, finding more efficient ways of doing collection is the driver for the e-questionnaire. Also, for some questions that are sensitive in nature, it can be more comfortable to do it on your own in the privacy of your own home," Ms. Rivais says.

Four modes

In addition to the e-questionnaire, there are three basic collection modes used at Statistics Canada. There is the classic paper version that arrives in the mail. There is a computer-aided telephone survey, where an interviewer calls, asks questions, and inputs answers on behalf of the respondent. And then, there are field interviewers who visit homes equipped with a laptop.

There is also another important data source, known as administrative data. Here, Statistics Canada can obtain data supplied by Canadians to other agencies, or departments for other programs. For instance, Statistics Canada has a data-sharing agreement with the Canada Revenue Agency to obtain some tax information with the same strict confidentiality requirements that apply to all Statistics Canada data. It means that a busy farmer or business owner does not need to fill out the same information over and over again for two government bodies.

All the modes provide good quality data.

Changing attitudes

A research unit was set up in the collection group last year to determine the best ways to keep the data flowing. The agency must be nimble to understand that attitudes change, and then figure out how to adapt to those changes.

For example, there seems to be a generational divide between those who prefer paper to e-questionnaires. However, this gap appears to be closing as more and more Canadians become computer savvy. But that is not the only divide. As all statistical agencies have discovered, the switch to cellphones makes people more difficult to track down. Also, etiquette for cellphones differs from that of landlines. Cellphone users tend to treat their phones as private, and feel less inclined to answer a call from an unknown number. However, texting, which is also widespread, is an even more convenient option. Should Statistics Canada take up texting?

People are also a bit more leery when someone calls to ask questions. And, despite their openness on Facebook and Twitter, younger respondents have concerns about privacy and confidentiality similar to those of the general population.

"The main complaint is that people are busy and it feels like a burden. We are not the only people making calls looking for information," Ms. Rivais says. Interviewers must arrive well-prepared to answer tough questions about the how and why of a survey, and how confidentiality is preserved.

Technological innovations

For the next census, the agency will be streamlining collection activities by merging collection operating systems into one IT environment, the Integrated Collection and Operation System. If you happen to be a statistician, this is very exciting news because it enables more efficient data collection. Gradually, and starting with the census, all business and social surveys will migrate to this centralized system.

Although it is a different era, e-questionnaires are very much in the Jean Talon tradition. While he physically took stock of the population, businesses, and the economy, today Statistics Canada can do more—and more of it digitally.

"Surveys tell the story of the health of the economy. They feed the System of National Accounts. They help us understand our economy by sector and look at trends over time," Ms. Rivais says.

It also goes back to the note of appreciation that has appeared on Statistics Canada products for over 20 years: "Canada owes the success of its statistical system to the long-standing partnership between Statistics Canada and the citizens of Canada, its businesses, governments, and other institutions. Accurate and timely statistical information could not be produced without their continued co-operation and goodwill."

Like any long partnership, it goes through changes and upheavals. Just as online dating and Facebook have changed the nature of romantic relationships, the paperless world is changing Statistics Canada’s relationship with Canadians. The goal is to keep finding ways to keep the partnership strong.

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