Managing interpretability

Statistical information that users cannot understand - or can easily misunderstand - has no value and may be a liability. Providing sufficient information to allow users to properly interpret statistical information is therefore a responsibility of the Agency. 'Information about information' has come to be known as meta-information or metadata.

Metadata are at the heart of the management of the interpretability indicator, by informing users of the features that affect the quality of all data published by Statistics Canada. The information provides a better understanding of the strengths and limitations of data, and how they can be effectively used and analysed. Metadata may be of particular importance when making comparisons with data across surveys or sources of information, and in drawing conclusions regarding change over time, differences between geographic areas and differences among subgroups of the target populations of surveys.11

The type of meta-information provided covers the data sources and methods used to produce the data published from statistical programmes, indicators of the quality of the data as well as the names and definitions of the variables, and their related classifications. Statistics Canada's IMDB also provides direct access to questionnaires.

10 Cat. no. 21F0003GIE.

11 See http://dissemination.statcan.gc.ca/english/concepts/background.htm

Statistics Canada's Policy on Informing Users of Data Quality and Methodology ensures that divisions comply with the Agency's requirements for ensuring accurate and complete metadata as it requires that all statistical products include or refer to documentation on data quality and methodology. The underlying principle behind the policy is that data users first must be able to verify that the conceptual framework and definitions that would satisfy their particular data needs are the same as or sufficiently close to those employed in collecting and processing the data. Users also need to be able to assess the degree to which the accuracy of the data and other quality factors are consistent with their intended use or interpretation. Individual IMDB records can be accessed on the Agency's website through hyperlinks from CANSIM, the on-line catalogue of products, summary tables and The Daily, as well as through a button found on its home page (Born, 2004).

Essentially, the information in the IMDB covers what has been measured, how it was measured, and how well it was measured. Users clearly need to know what has been measured (to assess its relevance to their needs), how it was measured (to allow appropriate analytical methods to be used), and how well it was measured (to have confidence in the results). Since we can rarely provide a profile of all dimensions of accuracy, the description of methodology also serves as a surrogate indicator of accuracy: it allows the user the option of assessing whether the methods used were scientific, objective and carefully implemented. It is important for statistical agencies to publish good metadata because by doing so they show openness and transparency, thereby increasing the confidence of users in the information they produce.

A further aid to Statistics Canada's clients is interpretation of data as they are released. Commentary in The Daily and in associated materials focuses on the primary messages that the new information contains. Directed particularly at the media and the public, such commentary increases the chance that at least the first level of interpretation to the public will be clear and correct. Statistics Canada attaches very high priority to the interpretability of its releases, especially those in The Daily, which get close and repeated advance scrutiny by senior management and by colleagues in other divisions such as the SNA branch and the Communications and Library Services Division.

Moreover, Statistics Canada's Policy on Highlights of Publications requires that all statistical publications contain a section that highlights the principal findings in the publication. In addition to the descriptive analysis in The Daily and in publications, major contributions to the interpretability of the Division's and other related data are found in its specialized analytic publications. Interpretive divisional publications, such as Understanding Measurements of Farm Income ,12 also aid in users' basic understanding of our data.

The metadata support all of the Agency's dissemination activities including its online data tables, CANSIM and summary tables, publications, analytical studies and The Daily. The metadata also support data collection activities. The IMDB is the source for the survey information displayed on the Information for Survey Participants module on Statistics Canada's website.

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