I’m a professional geographer (as I explained in another post: Bowles 2011). I use a specific kind of software called GIS (Bowles, 2010) to represent a variety of forms of information in such a way that they become geographic data. I analyze this over space and time, and draw conclusions that illustrate how place, culture and perspective can influence our daily lives. I try to make such data and their representations as easy to understand as possible. Although I used to say it the easy way: and claim that “I make maps”, that is not really true. I prepare data that is used to make maps. There are a thousand ways to do this, all of them distinct and each resulting in representations that are slightly different. One of the reasons I’m a “professional” is that I have learned the methods necessary to turn a particular form of information into the most accurate and “best” spatial representation possible.
There are many sources of this kind of geographic data. I work at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, and we have been collecting many forms of such data for decades. I have actually designed and run our “Data Download site” , where we have been releasing data to the public for the past year. I was really quite excited when I found a few months ago that if you google “Ontario data download“, this site is the firstto come up. (I think the placing actually has a lot to do with your history with Google, but it’s at least in the top ten.) Most of our data, of course, is on the physical and environmental side: things like climate change assessments, well records, drinking water data and hazardous waste information. Because these are all spatially identified, it is interesting to see how they can be plotted on a map, and how they relate over space.
One thing we don’t have, however, is geographic information about people. We don’t have anything in the way of demographics, and that is the other side of what I do. If I see that there is a clump of hazardous waste generators in a particular area, I’m interested in exploring what the human face of that area looks like. I want to know if there is any kind of racial component to the people who live there, or if they are all low income. (It happens that an editorial was written today on the subject of race and income and how important the census is to their study: Progressive Economics, 2010.) I want to see if schools or nursing homes are located close to such potentially threats. For that kind of data, I need to rely on the census.
Around the world, all countries have their own census department. In the U.S., the census is performed every 10 years, as it is in the U.K. and Mexico. In Canada, ours happens every 5 years, as does the census in Australia. Many Americans are going through the census right now; as it says on their website, “We can’t move forward until you give your answers back.” Canada has its census in 2011. Census data is used not only for work like mine, but almost every time the government locates a new service or meets a need. Particularly in a country like Canada, where the population is dispersed so unevenly, it’s important to have an accurate portrayal of where people are and what they are like. We also need to know how demographics change over time, which is why a consistent and repeated census is essential. Projections and estimates need an accurate base from which to extrapolate, or our forecasts become less than useless.
Last month, the Conservative government of Canada decided to do away with the mandatory long census form: because “some” consider it coercive and intrusive (Globe and Mail, 2010) . Yet I’m sure they also know that “voluntary surveys are simply not as reliable because certain groups are unlikely to respond”. As a result, since those “certain groups” are racial minorities and low wage earners, we won’t get an accurate picture of where the most vulnerable groups are located. (Since our MPs are often not part of either group, however, I’m not surprised that they don’t care.) If we don’t even know where the needs are, the government can’t be criticized when those needs don’t get met.
Censuses have been around for thousands of years. (It was the reason Jesus was born in Nazareth, remember? (Luke 2:1-4)) If we proceed with this idea, Canada will become “the only country in the world to relinquish retention of a compulsory long-form census” (Canadian Conference on the Arts, 2010). The Bush administration in the U.S. tried to do the same thing in 2002; but they actually studied the effect of the voluntary form (rather than relying on ideology and opinion) (U.S. Census, 2003). From the Executive Summary of this report, they noted:
The reliability of estimates was adversely impacted by the reduction in the total number of completed interviews
The estimated annual cost of implementing the [census] would increase by at least $59.2 million if the survey was voluntary and reliability was maintained
The use of voluntary methods had a negative impact on traditionally low response areas, that will compromise our ability to produce reliable data for these areas and for small population groups such as Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians, and Alaska Natives
A month ago, Dan Arnold (National Post, 2010) commented: “I know this isn’t a big issue. I don’t expect facebook groups and protests in the streets over it.” Well, it seems he underestimated the Canadian public a bit. As did Mr. Harper. Opposition to the decision is growing (The Star, 2010), even though the government stands firm. It would seem more of us are concerned about our right to be counted than our right to privacy. Perhaps we’re changing from our traditional status of just accepting what we’re told. There is a Facebook Group, (Facebook, 2010) a Go-Petition (Go_Petition, 2010) and a Vigil planned at Queen’s Park on August 5th at 7:00pm (Facebook, 2010). Since this effects the accuracy and the capacity for me to do my work and my research, I will certainly be there. If you have any interest in maintaining the accuracy of our government’s work regarding the collection of spatial data, I would suggest you express yourself as well.
This post was originally published on Gather.com, and is reproduced here (primarily to try to keep my writing in one spot).