Lies, damned lies and statistics

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Census
Remember all the media hype last month about how Canadians were so overjoyed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s restoration of the long-form census killed by Stephen Harper, they crashed Statistics Canada’s website in their rush to provide census information to the government?

Turns out it wasn’t true.

As revealed by CBC senior parliamentary reporter Dean Beeby, using internal documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, none of the three computer crashes that affected the StatsCan census site May 2 — the first day people could fill out the form online — had to do with the number of people accessing the site.

In fact, Beeby reports, computer traffic was only about half of the capacity StatsCan expected.

The real problems which shut down the site for about three hours — not the 45 minutes StatsCan initially claimed — were design flaws in the system.

Despite that, StatsCan tweeted on May 3, its “thanks” to Canadians “for responding (to the census) in such high numbers” that its site had been temporarily “overwhelmed by the enthusiasm”.

That set off a frenzy of inaccurate media reporting about how Canadians were showing so much support for Trudeau’s decision to restore the long-from census, they had crashed the census computer site trying to obtain census forms.

In fact, the first computer glitch May 2 occurred because the day before, StatsCan added nine visual images to its census “landing page,” without pre-testing them to see if they would clog up the system as people tried to download the census form.

StatsCan corrected that by compressing the images.

During the second glitch on May 2, Beeby reports, StatsCan posted a “highly misleading” notice its site was down due to “scheduled maintenance” of its online questionnaire, when it was actually a technical problem that had “never been seen” before. StatsCan told Beeby its notice was a mistake.

It refused to give the reason for the third computer failure on May 2 because it could, “facilitate the commission of an offence” by revealing a “vulnerability” in the system.

StatsCan’s actions raise several concerns.

Why did it take a reporter to get the real story?

Why didn’t StatsCan publicly correct its inaccurate statement that Canadians’ enthusiasm for filling out the census crashed its site, especially since it led to widespread, inaccurate media reporting?

Did StatsCan’s motivation in its original claim that the overwhelming response of Canadians seeking to fill out the census form had crashed its site, have anything to do with the fact it fit Trudeau’s political narrative attacking Stephen Harper for killing the long-form census?

StatsCan now says overall response to the census is “slightly more” than expected.

Its original story about an overwhelming online response always seemed suspicious, given that only one in four Canadian households gets the 36-page long-form census, while the rest get the shorter 10-question version.

Now we know even that was apparently too much for StatsCan to handle, despite spending $715 million preparing for the 2016 census over seven years.

BY LORRIE GOLDSTEIN, TORONTO SUN  June 25th 2016c

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