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Anil Arora, the chief statistician of Canada, never planned on a long public sector career. But as he tells Matt Ross, a series of fascinating challenges have kept him in the civil service. And now he faces his biggest task yet: rewiring government to put data at the heart of decision-making

When Anil Arora first joined Statistics Canada, he recalls, “I thought I’d be there for about six months – because government wasn’t the place where you went to do innovative things and have fun.”

But Arora’s civil service career proved rather longer than anticipated. He spent 22 years with the federal statistics agency, leaving in 2010 for a series of assistant deputy minister posts. And in 2016, he returned to Statistics Canada – known as StatCan – as the country’s chief statistician. “I used to think that innovation happens outside government,” he says now. “Boy, was I wrong!”

Over the last three decades, Canada’s government statisticians – like their peers around the world – have delivered massive changes in their working practices, tools and roles. And now they face a new challenge. As Arora points out, today we live in “an economy and a society that is data-driven”; and statisticians are key players in the task of giving data an equally central role in policymaking and service delivery.

The next challenge

Policymakers, Arora explains, are eager to make use of the new data riches generated by digital technologies. “And it’s no longer: ‘Tell me about what’s going on in housing, or justice, or health’,” he says. “They’re looking at the intersections between them – so it’s about how housing relates to mental health, or how the built environment impacts on quality of life.”

“The insights locked in those data sources are going to transform the way in which we use our precious resources to drive the results that our citizens expect of us in government,” he adds. “Statistics agencies have to step up.”

In part, this means updating how statistics bodies carry out their traditional roles: 70% of Canadians filled out the last census online, he points out. But statisticians are also grappling with two much wider challenges: making full use of the ever-expanding flows of public data; and expanding their work into new fields.

Crime data, provided by criminals

Those new fields include areas where statisticians have long struggled to gather reliable data, such as criminal activity. Traditionally, governments have measured crime via public surveys and police reports; but StatCan has developed ways of gathering information from people engaged in illegal activities.

The agency has, for example, devised a method for assessing the street price of cannabis. Though the drug was legalised in 2018, it remains illegal to buy it from an unlicensed supplier – but without good information on black market prices, policymakers risk making poor decisions on licensing and taxation.

StatCan’s solution was a website that, promising anonymity, asks citizens for information on the quantity, price and rough location of their purchases. “We let them know that we don’t track IP addresses or want their specific information,” Arora explains. “In the first week, we had 5000 responses; in a month, we had just under 20,000.”

This approach generated a lot of data very quickly, he adds. And StatCan was able to benchmark it by testing for trace cannabis elements in local waste water discharges: the website data largely explained the gaps between regulators’ information on licensed sales and the results of local water tests, validating its findings (see box). So now policymakers know that black market cannabis sells for about half the price charged by legal suppliers – and can alter course to suit.

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