07/22/2016 08:10 EDT | Updated 07/22/2016 08:59 EDT

Census By Cellphone? StatsCan May Text Questions To Canadians

Texting could be the solution to an alarming drop in response rates.

OTTAWA — Forget checking your mailbox for future Statistics Canada questionnaires and instead be ready to check the text-message inbox on your cell phone.

Texting questions to Canadians is one of several options the agency is considering to confront an alarming drop in response rates to surveys —  declines that are "threatening the quality of official statistics" and could "soon lead some to question the usability of the data itself."

The deteriorating quality of data was a key theme for chief statistician Wayne Smith when he delivered a town hall address to staff in February, according to a copy of his speaking notes and accompanying presentation obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

The agency has already started using online questionnaires like the 2016 census to collect the information researchers and policy makers use to identify social, financial and economic trends, and plan for new schools or hospitals.

Geoff Bowlby, the director general who oversees data collection work at the agency, said Statistics Canada has also tested using text messages to connect with Canadians who more and more are eschewing land lines for mobile devices and are less likely to want to spend time on their cell phones responding to survey questions.

"We're asking ourselves, are there ways we can contact Canadians using the text message. If we did, what is the best way to text message, what kind of information would be in a text message. These are some of the things we're studying with cell phones," Bowlby said.

(Photo: Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

It's one way the agency is looking to raise response rates, which are crucial for Statistics Canada to put out reliable data. When the response rates are too low, the data becomes unreliable and unusable, which is why the agency withheld data on thousands of small communities from the voluntary long-form census in 2011 .

Michael Wolfson, a former assistant chief statistician, said low response rates tend to mean some groups like the poor aren't providing any information, which makes the results not representative of the Canadian population — something policy makers rely on for planning and crafting legislation.

For years, Statistics Canada has cold-called Canadians on their land lines, asking questions while respondents sat comfortably in their homes.

Cold-calling cell phones hasn't worked as well because the phones' owners could be on a bus, in a work meeting, or walking down a street, which could limit their interest or make them feel uncomfortable giving out personal information in a public place.

(Photo: The Canadian Press)

Smith, in his February speech, said the status quo for data collection was unsustainable, especially with more demands on the agency in the era of "big data" and a new Liberal government that wanted to make evidence-based decisions.

His presentation touched on some of the large data gaps that existed in key policy areas for the new government, including labour market participation, particularly for aboriginals, the health of children under age 12, innovation and e-commerce, the environment, and energy.

To mitigate some of the problems, Statistics Canada is turning to data the government already holds — such as tax and benefit statistics — and connecting them in new ways to learn something new. Earlier this year, Statistics Canada researchers pored over hospitalization, employment and taxation databases to learn about the financial effects of hospital stays due to illness.

"Survey data and getting out and asking people about things is an important source of data that administrative data will never answer," said Doug Norris, who spent nearly 30 years at Statistics Canada.

In his speech, Smith also took direct aim at the government's central information technology department, Shared Services Canada, for problems that either led to outages or to sluggish systems critical to Statistics Canada's mandate. Smith's speaking notes suggest he wanted his agency to have control of its own systems rather than having to turn to Shared Services Canada.

The message was wrapped in an overall theme of making Statistics Canada more independent from the federal government, which the Liberals vowed to do during the election.

"Dependence on another party for informatics services impedes our ability to deliver our programs, to innovate and transform, (and) to better address new and emerging data needs," Smith's speaking notes read.

"As such, this dependence is incoherent with the notion of independence, not to mention protection of the confidentiality of respondent data."

— With files from Jim Bronskill