Why the return of the long-form census matters to business

The census was a key source of affordable, high-quality market data for thousands of businesses. The alternatives never measured up

Census 2016 pictured on top of a computer keyboard

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Canadians nerded out en masse this week with the return of the mandatory long-form census. We took selfies with the questionnaire, posted exuberant Tweets hailing open data, and crashed the StatsCan website in our rush to fill out a routine government document.

It’s no question that six years after the Conservative government terminated the mandatory survey, Canadians are feeling left in the dark, statistically speaking. The census—which collects in-depth data every five years on income, employment status, ethnicity, education level, housing, media preferences, and much more—is a critical tool for policy-makers, scientists, and researchers. For businesses, census data was an affordable, fundamental part of basic market research, especially for small or medium-sized businesses for whom major national market surveys were impractical.

“There’s all kinds of evidence now that says companies that use data effectively have a competitive advantage over those who don’t,” says Jan Kestle, founder and president of Environics Analytics. As Kestle explains, data can help companies find untapped markets and fine-tune marketing efforts to improve client satisfaction. “Brands really analyze who their customers are, and what they want and need using good data,” she adds.

During the hiatus of the mandatory long-form census, the government did still collect data, but on a smaller scale. Every household received the compulsory short-form, eight question census, and one third of those houses received the National Household Survey, a voluntary questionnaire that replaced the mandatory long-form census. Response rates dropped from 94% to 68% when the government switched from the mandatory to voluntary questionnaire, and Statistics Canada withheld data at the neighbourhood level, deeming it unreliable. For businesses, that meant limited data at the local market level.

For Environics Analytics, which makes its business analyzing data for organizations, the census cut was a blow. “It was a big challenge,” says Kestle. But it was also an opportunity: Environics adapted by sourcing data from multiple third parties to develop a new product called Census Plus. Kestle describes it as an enhanced 2011 census that includes small area data. The project involved 13 statisticians working with about 18,000 variables for 750,000 residential postal codes to try to fill in what was missing from the 2011 National Household Survey.  “We never claimed it was as good as the old census,” says Kestle, but says it was better than nothing. Five hundred clients now use Census Plus to inform their policy and business strategies.

Census Plus was possible largely because EA had 2006 long-form census data to compare with the 2011 National Household Survey and mandatory short-form census data. But another period without the mandatory long-form, and Kestle says compiling accurate data wouldn’t be possible. “We needed the census back in order to continue doing the good work that we do.”

Now that it’s back, Kestle says she isn’t surprised that Canadians are gushing over the long-form census. “There’s an awareness that decisions governments and businesses make should be based on facts,” she says. “And the idea that we didn’t need that rich portrait of society down to the neighbourhood level for good decision-making, that didn’t sit well with Canadians.”