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Data dearth: Statscan website crash hits bankers, economists

Signage mark the Statistics Canada offiices in Ottawa.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Nearly a week after Statistics Canada's website crashed, reams of economic data are still unavailable, slowing work for economists, trade groups, policy shops and banks.

The Statscan website is now working. But in-depth data on jobs, trade, gross domestic output and other critical information is still not available online.

"It has been a nuisance and in some cases it means that work is simply being delayed, or won't get done," said Stephen Tapp, research director with the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

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The lack of access to data contained in the so-called CANSIM tables means people cannot take a deeper look at social and economic issues such as wages and migration patterns. The data can show, for example, how many people left Alberta after the oil collapse or how wage growth is declining despite an uptick in jobs.

"I have spent hours of my time searching for data that I would otherwise be able to have gotten in minutes," said Rosalie Wyonch, a policy analyst with the C.D. Howe Institute. "The first thing I do after I come into the office in the morning is check whether CANSIM is back up."

Ms. Wyonch uses Statscan data for almost all of her work. One of her projects is looking at the long-term fiscal health of each province and what needs to be done to ensure they remain sustainable.

She was able to retrieve some information from provincial public accounts but not able to get population data.

"One simple data set could potentially just stall a project until I find the data or until CANSIM comes back up," she said.

Likewise, the chief economist for the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters group estimates that the data outage has eliminated three-quarters of his work.

"I wouldn't quite say twiddling my thumbs here, but I have more free time," said Mike Holden, who checks whether the Statscan website is working at least four to five times a day.

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With the future of the North American free-trade agreement up in the air, Mr. Holden is constantly pulling together research on Canada's economic relationship with the United States. His group represents 90,000 manufacturers across Canada and he said "everyone has a million questions."

"There's a lot of work in those areas where we would like to produce some detailed information," he said.

Although there have been workarounds, such as using U.S. government data for trade details and requesting specific data sets from Statscan, it is not really a good option.

Mr. Holden typically uses dozens of tables, including manufacturing sales and inventory levels. "It would take me forever to explain to them exactly what it is that I wanted," he said.

It's the same story for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which has been pulling together trade data for its pro-NAFTA campaign. The Chamber's senior director for economic policy Hendrik Brakel said he has been trying to use other sources of information but is stuck without Statscan data.

"It turns out that we really love Statscan. You don't realize how much you appreciate something until it's gone," said Mr. Brakel, who checks the website daily and feels frustrated when the government's apology pops up. "Poor little data. Locked away and can't get out," he joked.

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When Statscan's main website first crashed a week ago Friday, it was the day that one of the country's top economic indicators was released – the labour force survey.

Dozens of economists and researchers who rely on the information were out of luck. For example, Bank of Montreal was delayed in getting the jobs data and not able to get its report out to clients promptly.

And as the federal Liberal government gets ready to unveil its budget next week, many are wondering whether they will be able to do the proper analysis.

"Without quick access to data it is much harder for independent economists to provide their views and analysis," said the Institute for Research on Public Policy's Mr. Tapp. "Better data access would be far preferable to having pundits offer comment who have not looked at the data before forming their views."

The federal finance department, which is in charge of writing the budget, said the outage has not affected its budget preparations. Likewise, the Bank of Canada and Ontario's finance department said their work has not been affected.

Statscan often suffers from short interruptions on its website. A spokesperson for Statscan said the agency was "continuing to review all our applications and working to make them fully accessible soon."

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About the Author
Economics Reporter

Rachelle Younglai is The Globe and Mail's economics reporter. More

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