New funding will fill key data gaps, create Canadian information centre

Posted on in Governance Policy Context

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TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion/Federal budget 2019
March 20, 2019.    AND

The federal budget is channelling tens of millions of dollars toward filling key data gaps in housing, gender equality, the labour force and Indigenous communities, areas where researchers say Canadians are often in the dark thanks to spotty or inaccessible numbers.

The new funding includes more than $15-million over five years to create a Canadian Centre for Energy Information, an apparent effort to redress what experts have long called a woeful lack of understanding of the country’s energy landscape and efforts to combat climate change.

But despite the spending bump, some critics are already worrying the money falls short of what Canada needs to fix its data deficit, which often leaves the country lagging peers such as Britain and the United States in the availability of core statistics.

Tuesday’s budget commitments come amid a continuing Globe and Mail series looking at Canada’s chronic shortage of public data. For example, we don’t know the annual marriage and divorce rate, how far Canadians drive, how many long-term-care homes exist in the country or how much doctors are paid by drug companies, among dozens of other blind spots.

In response to The Globe’s reporting, the Liberal government declined to make any firm commitments to fill these data gaps, even while acknowledging that Canada has many.

The Globe and Mail has uncovered myriad data deficits, culled from dozens of interviews, research reports, government documents, international searches and feedback from our own newsroom. Here’s a list of what we found, which we’ll be adding to as the investigation continues.

Health: 7 of 28 data gaps
  • ALL
  • CHILDREN
  • ECONOMY
  • EDUCATION
  • ENVIRONMENT
  • GENDER
  • HEALTH
  • HOUSING
  • INDIGENOUS
  • JUSTICE
  • RACE
  • OTHER
What are the wait times for mental-health services?

  • HEALTH

Reporting on wait times for mental-health services lacks consistency; we don’t have a number for the national average, nor is this information captured in one place, says the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“That’s a huge gap, because what we know about mental illnesses is [that] when it goes untreated, it only gets worse with time,” said Fardous Hosseiny, the CMHA’s national director of research and public policy. “There needs to be some way of tracking it, because once we track it, we know where to invest.”

The Canadian Institute for Health Information is working with the provinces to collect this data, but it will take several years. Britain collects and publishes data on access to and wait times for mental-health services.`

Which cities have the lowest vaccination rates?

  • HEALTH
  • CHILDREN

We lack accessible data on vaccination rates among children. Canada doesn’t have a standardized network of immunization registries, resulting in a patchwork picture.

This makes it difficult to precisely detect where vaccination rates are low and thus which areas or populations may be at risk for an outbreak. The United States has a clearer picture of how vaccination rates differ across the country and thus which communities are better protected.

At what rate are workers being killed on the job?

  • ECONOMY
  • HEALTH

Canada does not track on-the-job injury and fatality rates, unlike countries such as Australia, Britain and the U.S. This makes it difficult to determine which jobs and industries are getting safer, which are becoming more risky, and how to best target injury prevention efforts.

Do children with disabilities have the services they need?

  • CHILDREN
  • HEALTH

Canada has not produced a comprehensive national picture of young children with disabilities since 2006, a data gap that has raised concerns at the United Nations. This hinders decision-making and is one of the factors contributing to difficulties in the creation and co-ordination of services, says McGill University assistant professor Keiko Shikako-Thomas.

For families, this means it can be challenging to find the help they need for their children. A Statistics Canada national health survey of children and youth may partially fill this gap, but it’s not due for release until 2020.

Are Canadian children thriving?

  • CHILDREN
  • HEALTH

UNICEF Canada has faced challenges assembling an index of children’s well-being. Lisa Wolff, its director of policy and research, found data gaps in many aspects of how children are faring in this country. These gaps ranged from breastfeeding to vaccination rates, unstructured play, mental health, homelessness, online activities and school suspensions.

“This is children’s data – it’s their data, it’s not government’s data, and it should be better co-ordinated to provide a reliable national picture,” she said.

A pending Statistics Canada survey of children and youth may partially fill this gap, but it’s not due for release until 2020. Ireland publishes a comprehensive, data-driven biennial report on the state of its children, based on well-being indicators.

Source: UNICEF Canada; Caledon Institute of Social Policy
How many homeless people are dying?

  • HEALTH
  • HOUSING

There are currently no national efforts to track this; though some municipalities have counts, there is no consistency in this area, according to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. “It presents a real challenge when we are trying to track outcomes for people who are homeless,” it said.

England has started to track this annually.

Source: Stephen Gaetz, professor and president, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
What are the lead exposures in children at the local level?

  • CHILDREN
  • HEALTH
  • ENVIRONMENT

Canada doesn’t have detailed data on blood lead levels among kids, so we don’t know much about possible links between lead exposures and social or geographic factors.

There are pockets of data available, but no co-ordinated national database that allows for analysis by province or neighbourhood, according to Ray Copes, chief of Environmental and Occupational Health at Public Health Ontario.

As well, detailed data are also lacking on the mercury exposure of Canadian children. Both lead and mercury are listed as toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and both are particularly harmful to children’s health. British Columbia now has one of the best programs in Canada to track lead and mercury in blood.

Source: Health Canada; EOH
* By data gap, we mean areas at the national level in which data are not collected or readily accessible. These could be areas where there is no ability to compare across provinces or cities, where the existing information is years out of date, published infrequently or not comparable with prior years.

Still, a hub for energy stats is something academics have been urging for years. The budget promises about $3-million a year for Natural Resources Canada to collaborate with Statistics Canada on a website that will compile energy numbers from across levels of government, and look to collect missing data.

Nicholas Rivers, a Canada Research Chair in climate and energy policy at the University of Ottawa, says such gaps pockmark the field. Numbers on how much gasoline is sold in various provinces are often out of date and full of unexplained holes, for example.

But while Mr. Rivers approved of the government’s proposed data hub in principle, he said its budget appears inadequate to the challenge facing the country. He noted that, in 2016, the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration had annual funding of US$122-million, or an order of magnitude more than what Ottawa is providing for the new centre.

Three million dollars “is not nothing, but it’s not transformative either,” he said. “I would be disappointed if this is just a reorganization of existing resources with a new website.”

There are similar concerns around the $1.5-million over five years that has been allocated to collecting more standardized data around gender equality.

“It is great that the federal government is beginning to shine a light on the lack of data to inform gender-aware policy-making,” said Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “But the funding is likely to be highly inadequate to develop the kinds of data required. It is unclear to me if standardizing frameworks is as important as identifying what new types of data need to be collected or what new analyses need to be performed.”

The budget contains several other passels of money for data collection by different ministries, including around housing supply and organ donation. It promises $79-million over seven years for education, health and other surveys in Indigenous communities, to be led by the First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC) – a commitment the group’s executive director Jonathan Dewar applauded.

“As a First Nations-led non-profit committed to helping First Nations achieve data sovereignty, FNIGC welcomes the announcement in the federal budget of permanent and ongoing funding for our current survey efforts,” he said.

Still, relatively little new money in this budget goes directly to Statscan – despite previous Liberal efforts to restore funding to the national statistical agency that had been cut by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

“It’s a disappointment,” said Wayne Smith, former chief statistician at Statscan, adding that he had expected to see more reinvestment in the agency’s base funding. “There’s not going to be a fundamental change in the availability of data without new funding.”

In the dark: The cost of Canada’s data deficit

Shot in the dark: On vaccinations for measles and other diseases, data gaps leave Canadians guessing

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