|Statistics Canada to make all online data free|
All of Statistics Canada’s standard online products, including the census, socioeconomic and geographic data, will be offered to the public for free starting February 2012, Embassy has learned.
In 2010, the agency was rocked when the government dropped the mandatory long-form census, and its chief statistician resigned in protest. Immigration experts slammed the decision for jeopardizing the targeted delivery of services like languages training and job-search workshops.
Now, the agency will not charge for the information it gathered during the 2011 census. Instead, as it releases the first set of census data this February, it will also announce that it will be free—as well as the rest of its online, readily-available data.
While Statistics Canada has been working towards opening up more of its data for several years, it still currently charges for a portion of its online data, including, for example, some data sets inside its Canadian Socioeconomic Information Management System, what the agency calls its “key socioeconomic database.”
Researchers, economists and other individuals buy these products, and several firms are also licensed by the agency to act as redistributors. Some of those firms charge for reselling the data, and some roll it into other value-added products they sell. This fall, the agency began alerting "key stakeholders" to the upcoming change.
“As of February 1, 2012, Statistics Canada will begin to implement a new dissemination model. Standard products readily available on its website—including CANSIM data, census data and geography products—will be offered free of charge,” reads one letter sent to a distributor dated Aug. 23, and obtained by Embassy.
The letter acknowledged the impact the change would have on businesses. But the purpose of making all these products free, it said, is “to provide users with maximum benefit from statistical information about Canada’s economy and society.”
The agency will still be charging for physical products like maps and hard-copy publications, products that are not readily available on the agency’s website, and custom services or products, adds the letter.
Statistics Canada spokesperson Peter Frayne said the decision has been in the works for years, and brings the agency in line with other statistical offices around the world, such as the United States Census Bureau.
“In 1996, we published summary tables free of charge. In 2001, we increased the amount of census data available for free. In 2006, all online publications became free,” he wrote in an email.
That last move, however, still meant that CANSIM data sets not released as part of Statistics Canada’s publications such as The Daily were still being sold. “Offering CANSIM data without charge is the next logical step,” wrote Mr. Frayne.
The letter also says that organizations currently buying the data from Statistics Canada will be “encouraged” to redistribute information under the government’s new open data licence agreement.
The government launched an open data initiative in March, putting hundreds of thousands of data sets into an online, publicly accessible portal. Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who was industry minister when the long-form census decision was made last summer, is a champion of the open data concept.
But Mr. Frayne said the decision to make Statistics Canada online data free was part of a years-long strategy by the agency, and while it “aligns with the principles” of the open data initiative, it was not a result of it.
He also said the move was not related to the decision to get rid of the long-form census.
The impact of that decision is still reverberating in the public sphere. On Nov. 23, the Canadian Council on Social Development appeared in federal court arguing that the new short-form census should include more questions on subjects such as ethnicity, religion and disability status.
Statistics council in favour
The National Statistics Council—the government-appointed body that advises the country’s chief statistician, and objected last year to the long-form census decision—applauded the move.
Several members said the body has been pushing for the data to be opened up for years. The agency originally began charging for the data because it was trying to recover costs, they said, but those costs have gone down with the Internet making online distribution relatively cost-free. There are also administrative costs associated with running an operation that charges for products.
As well, Statistics Canada has an agreement with several academic institutions across the country to allow members to access the data for free. That agreement, in retrospect, was the template for what's coming in February, they said.
He said one of the few elements holding back Statistics Canada was Treasury Board policies which have now been largely eliminated.
Council member John Helliwell agreed that the move will make the information more useful to more Canadians, as well as people outside Canada.
“In terms of making Canadian data available for comparative research elsewhere, this is a big step forward,” he said.
John White, a former agency employee, founded GDSourcing in 1997, a company specializing in helping researchers find government statistics. It is one of the companies currently authorized to resell Statistics Canada data.
He said Statistics Canada told him that after February he could continue selling data products as long as he manipulated the data in some way, instead of getting people to pay for the same data they will be able to obtain from the agency for free.
“It should be to everyone’s advantage, other than Stats Canada,” he said.