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Why free Statscan data is good for all Canadians

The wealth of free economic data provided by Statistics Canada will be a boon for businesses and skilled analysts.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University, where she teaches public finance. Her recent Economy Lab posts can be found here.

Statistics Canada is now making its CANSIM data freely available on-line. A direct link to the data can be found on the Statcan home page.

The wealth of economic data provided by CANSIM will be a boon for businesses and skilled analysts -- people who know how to translate CPI numbers such as January 1949 = 10.9 and December 2011 = 136.8 into an annual inflation rate, and need detailed economic indicators for their business forecasts. Yet what does it mean for the typical Canadian?

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For people who are interested in broad economic and social indicators such as per capita GDP, health expenditures as percentage of national income, or infant mortality rates, there are other sites that provide more data, and have better graphics facilities, such as the Gapminder website, the World Bank, or the United Nations Human Development program. Tellingly, in a recent blogpost, Kevin Milligan used life expectancy data from The CANSIM life expectancy data only go back as far as 1992/4;'s data go back to 1921. These other sites also provide international data, which helps put Canada's experience into perspective.

Where CANSIM shines is providing insight into Canadian economic and social trends. For example, no other website has such detailed information on federal, provincial and local government revenues and expenditures. This morning I discovered, for example, that corporate income taxes have been steadily rising as a percentage of federal government revenue over the past 20 years. This is a finding that raises as many questions as it answers -- was the increase simply due to the long economic boom of the 1990s and 2000s? Are more people choosing incorporation as a tax planning strategy? Are corporate income taxes becoming relatively more important because the federal government is collecting less revenue from other sources, for example, the GST? Has there actually been a rise in the effective corporate tax rates?

Other CANSIM data sheds light on these questions. Table 180-0003 gives detailed, industry-level data on corporate profits, assets, revenues, expenditures, and so on. Using that data it becomes apparent that increasing corporate tax revenues are not due to increasing tax rates -- in fact corporate income taxes as a percentage of operating profits have fallen by about ten percentage points over the past ten years.

Yet as soon as one begins to realize CANSIM's potential, one starts to become frustrated with its limitations. Why does the tax revenue series only start at 1989? Yes, there is another, different series, that provides revenue data from 1961 to 1980 (table 384-0022), but what about those nine years in the middle?

The download facilities on the CANSIM website are also a bit clunky. For example, when I downloaded my government revenue data, I wanted to get a spreadsheet with each time series in a separate column. Instead, all of the data downloaded into a single column, and I had to cut-and-paste the data into separate time series (it may be that this problem can be avoided by choosing to download the data into a database, or that it is a browser or mac-specific issue). I also had difficulty downloading only the data that I wanted.

I suspect that these are just teething issues, problems that will rapidly be resolved as Statistics Canada receives feedback from users. Indeed, the best way to ensure that Statistics Canada keeps and maintains its open access policy is for concerned citizens to get on-line, use the information, and demonstrate the value of data liberation.

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About the Author

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University, where she teaches public finance. Professor Woolley is a former Secretary Treasurer of the Canadian Economics Association, and currently co-editor of Review of Economics of the Household. Her research on taxation and the family was awarded the Purvis Prize in 2001 and the John Vanderkamp Award in 1997. More

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