Special surveys and more

May 20, 2015

Just how much do Canadians know about their finances? What are the immunization rates among children in Canada? How many Canadians use alcohol and tobacco? Every year, StatCan undertakes a number of special surveys, covering a wide range of issues relevant to Canadian society and its economy.

StatCan conducts most of these special surveys on a cost-recovery basis, on behalf of other government departments or agencies. Occasionally, the agency conducts surveys for academia or businesses. Typically, every survey is customized to fill information gaps or answer specific questions related to public decision making.

Why come to Statistics Canada?

Most clients choose StatCan for its reputation, expertise and data quality. Experts in the Special Surveys Division work with clients to help develop the content and design of their survey, as well as to test every question.

“Usually the people who come to us are people who really need high-quality information for their decision making,” says Heather Dryburgh, Director of the Division. “They need to have the reputation of Statistics Canada behind them. They want to be able to say that these data are of very good quality, and the work was done with rigorous methods, and we can rely on it to be accurate and to make sound decisions.”

Sound practices

The agency delivers the high-quality data that they expect. It does this by using sound statistical practices, respecting confidentiality, documenting concepts and methods, and leveraging its statistical infrastructure.

The Special Surveys Division works with clients to collect the information they need, within their allocated budget. Costs vary depending on the number of people surveyed, the geographic area covered, and the length and complexity of the questionnaire.

“We pretty much always do a feasibility study first that allows the survey manager and the client to think through all the steps before we commit to it,” Dr. Dryburgh explains.

However, to be accepted by Statistics Canada, custom work must meet certain criteria. It must be statistical in nature and compatible with Statistics Canada’s mandate. The agency ensures that the custom work it undertakes will contribute to the national statistical system, without compromising the agency’s relationship with respondents. It also stipulates that the results, or outputs, of the work must be made available to all Canadians.

Supporting innovation

Along with undertaking special surveys, the Special Surveys Division has played a role in supporting innovation throughout the agency’s history. The division was the first to use computer-assisted telephone applications. These applications allow interviewers to call, ask questions, and input answers on behalf of respondents. The division was also the first to test equipping field interviewers with secure laptops for in-home interviews.

Today, the Special Surveys Division is a leader in the development of common tools for use across the agency. These reduce training costs and improve consistency. Thanks to the division, almost all social surveys are developed with a common questionnaire design tool. Many clients also use the division’s environment to process their data.

The development of new data files through record linkage is another of the division’s projects. For example, a record linkage environment in the social domain is currently under development. In this environment, data from various sources can be temporarily linked to answer policy-relevant questions.

Reuse, reuse, reuse

Record linkage offers efficient use of information. “It really has many benefits to Canadians in that it allows us to provide information without a lot of respondent burden…It follows the government ideal of collecting information once and then reuse, reuse, reuse,” Dr. Dryburgh says.

This year, the social data linkage project will link cohorts in five key longitudinal files to a number of other administrative records, which will extend the relevance of the longitudinal data.

Besides the agency’s renown, one of the benefits of having Statistics Canada collect data is that the information collected is released to the public. Hence, the results of a survey that has been paid for by a client, whether it is a government department or a business, are made available to all citizens, on an equal basis, through an official release in The Daily.

“It is an investment for all Canadians,” Dr. Dryburgh explains, “because the data are not just for the client, they are available to everybody.”

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