Leading with integrity

The Data Ethics Secretariat’s role in acquiring non-traditional data

Historically, the gathering of information by Statistics Canada has followed a traditional survey centric approach.

A survey is created. A note at the top of the survey tells potential respondents how their answers would be used. Potential respondents can then decide if they want to participate. In the past, Statistics Canada relied mostly on surveys to produce official statistics.

In response to declining response rates, rising survey costs, and increases in the demand for timely data to inform decision making, Statistics Canada has explored new methods to gather information made possible by to advances in technology.

That is why Statistics Canada shifted its focus from a survey-first approach to an approach that prioritizes the use of non-traditional or alternative data sources, which includes data such as earth observation data, scanner data and administrative data (i.e. birth and death certificates; health and education records; and records related to the flow of goods and people across borders are all examples of administrative data).

The use of these types of data has been at the core of the recent modernization initiatives at Statistics Canada. Along with the use of non-traditional data sources, technological advances have also taken place. For example, Machine Learning, artificial intelligence, and web-scraping capacity, are all techniques that can be used to obtain and understand data. But with this innovation has come new ethical questions. Just because it is possible to do something does not mean we should, even with a legal mandate to do so.

First, using alternative data often means using information for a different purpose than was originally intended when the data was first collected. This could be viewed as overstepping privacy limits when data pertains to personal information. In order to use these data, Statistics Canada must ensure that the level of information being sought is proportional to the expected benefits of the information being gathered.

Second, by accessing so much specific information from different parts of the country—for example, data pertaining to health, education or criminality from one community—detailed overviews of communities can emerge. The agency wants to make sure this information gives voice to the communities and not stigmatize or spread harmful stereotypes. This is especially important when collecting information about vulnerable or marginalized communities.

To face these challenges, in 2019, Statistics Canada adopted the Necessity and Proportionality Framework. Under this framework, every proposal for a new project or data acquisition must explain why it is important, what the benefits are to Canadians, who needs the information and address ethical considerations such as privacy, transparency, and fairness.

This framework also ensures that the agency only acquires the information it needs, always has a specific purpose for the information, and that each project has the best interests of the people of Canada at heart—ensuring an ethics by design culture. Trust is the foundation of our work at Statistics Canada and our Data Ethics Secretariat helps ensure any potential ethical concerns are addressed as they emerge.

Each proposal for a new project or data acquisition undergoes an ethical review by the Data Ethics Secretariat, and is tested on six guiding principles:

  • Benefits for Canadians
  • Privacy and security
  • Transparency and accountability
  • Trust and sustainability
  • Data quality
  • Fairness and do no harm

All new mandatory requests for information and pertinent details are published on our website prior to the request being made to ensure transparency and openness with Canadians. Only after this rigorous ethical review are these activities brought to fruition.

The production of valuable statistics and research to benefit Canadians all begins by working closely with the data provider. The people of Canada can trust that information gathered from them, and about them, is done so for them—and that these activities are carried out with integrity and the highest ethical standards.

Date modified: