Mandatory Independence

Among all those nice posts about the latest data visualizations and web 2.0 activities we must not forget how all the data is gathered that we later on distribute, publish or visualize. Keeping the balance between the burden of filling out forms and privacy concerns on the one hand and demands for high quality data on the other have occupied us for ages. This becomes especially visible with a census where typically the largest amount of people are affected.

It probably comes at no surprise that statistical offices aren’t the only ones juggling that balance. More often than not they have superiors and those are in politics. Recent events in Canada are worth being spread in this community in case they haven’t already.

From my understanding of two articles in The Globe and Mail Canada’s Industry Minister wants to make the census long-form voluntary against the advice from Statistics Canada. The debate ended in the Canadian chief statistician stepping down:

Dr. Sheikh’s Wednesday night resignation as Statistics Canada’s chief statistician over the census is all the more remarkable because of its rarity. In a world where loyalty is king, bureaucrats of his standing do not tend to quit over differences of opinion.
He did. In doing so, he displayed qualities that have emerged through his 38-year career: stubbornness and independence of mind.
The Globe and Mail, July 23, 2010

This is indeed remarkable. The lack of people speaking up when it comes to political interference with official statistics is no proof that such interference does not exist. In theory there are provisions in some countries such as the following:

The professional independence of statistical authorities from other policy, regulatory or administrative departments and bodies, as well as from private sector operators, ensures the credibility of European Statistics.
Article 1 of the European Statistics Code of Practice

But at least off the record many people involved might regard such codes to be mere lip service and wouldn’t be surpised to read something like this in the news:

In an interview published Wednesday, Clement said that some people at Statistics Canada “like to think” they are an independent agency, but in fact they report to him as minister.

At least one should spread the word about such instances.

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