As Canada decides to legalise cannabis for recreational purpose from October this year, Chief Statistician of Canada Anil Arora speaks on the crucial role of statistics and data in the formulation of policy decisions such as the one regarding recreational cannabis, as well as on the need to base decisions on good evidence. In an interview with Aanchal Magazine and Anil Sasi, Arora, who was in Delhi for the government’s roundtable conference on ‘Data for New India’, stressed on the importance of investing in infrastructure for statistics. Edited excerpts:
What are your observations for a country like India where the numbers are so huge and we are still following a very traditional form of data collection for official statistics? Should we completely shift to digital method of data collection?
We are in a transitional phase. Surveys still have a role to play. In fact, on certain types of indicators, people’s views, opinions on certain types of things. Surveys are still going to be there, they are still a necessary part to go to citizens and ask for information and their views on certain things or preferences of certain things. I don’t see that going away completely and in many organisations, including parts of the Indian statistical system, that harvesting of administrative data source is another innovative sources of information. In Canada, (there is) same thing. We put together four pathfinder projects in Canada to demonstrate the power of using alternate methods to collect that kind of information without burdening our citizens.
As you may know, in Canada, we are going to legalise recreational cannabis. The department has decided on October 17 as the date when it comes into force and Statistics Canada looked into it as an opportunity to say how can we provide good data on what is the correct consumption of what is an illegal product until October 17th. So, we used crowdsourcing application and we got very good data…we were upfront with Canadians, this is what we were going to do, how we are going to learn from this process and five thousand Canadians in the first week gave us information. In the first month, we had over 17,000 responses and you just think about mechanisms like that on electronic interface on a what is a sensitive topic obviously and how a citizen can actually respond to something like that and give us decent information.
In fact, when we went back and had a look at that information, 97 per cent of it was very good, very consistent responses. We found that there was relationships between the quantity if you like, the consumption and purchasing and the price paid for it. Simple economics, buy it more often, they pay a less price. It has actually challenged if you like as a nation our notion of what was the price per gram and now we have statistics by province what that consumption pattern is, as a nation what that pattern is and that’s absolutely crucial for us from an economic view we can push back to know what is that baseline, so that when it does become legal, we don’t see an artificial spike in our GDP (gross domestic product). So, now we can smoothen that out.
We have gone back and benchmarked it to other surveys and so we can actually go back to really 1960 and get a sense of what the consumption pattern is.
Interestingly, we are not experimenting to say, when it does become legal, the question is going to be what is the effect of price on the legal versus the illegal market. So, we actually tapped into the effluent. This is again the kind of creative thinking to say why a treatment plant has well-defined captured area, you can get at the per capita consumption by measuring the THC levels in the effluent and so you know what the denominator is going to be and when you have the production numbers from a legal perspective, you can subtract the two and still get a sense of what is the illegal consumption and what is the effect of price on consumption.
These are the innovative things we can do just because of data and the innovativeness of people to connect ideas and technology to get at statistics. We still have to figure out how to deal with bias, instead of sampling errors and things like that, but those are the things that statisticians are fairly decent at doing. That’s what they get paid to do.
It’s a very exciting time when you think about just the role of statistics and data in the governance of your nation and how important it is to make sure that decisions are based on good evidence and good facts as those data sources are starting to become more prolific. Just like I argue that in old days how you built a railroad to connect people, there was a big infrastructure investment in the project and we benefit from it today because it brings people, ideas, goods and so on together, data is doing that.
As statistical systems, we have to invest in infrastructure that is necessary, so we can benefit from data and as you know, data are changing business models, they are putting or casting aside companies and models that were there for a long, long time and it’s pure data that are driving that connection between producers and consumers.
How much of this decision to legalise cannabis in Canada is actually based on the data that Statistics Canada got? Were these largely surveys? In most of the cases, till it is legalised, much of the consumption would be illegal, not much reported, so how did you manage to get people to reveal the consumption standards?
First of all, the decision to make it legal was a political one and was a part of the mandate of the government when they came in power and we already had as a country legalised medicinal use of cannabis…this is about legalising the recreational component of that consumption. So, we had in Canada a number of surveys have been done for number of years. One of the surveys was on alcohol, tobacco and drug use across a nation.
We had some data on what that consumption pattern looked like over the last few decades and how it was changing over time by age and so on. We had a little bit of baseline. What we needed was current consumption and to launch a survey in a legal kind of setting, forget about illegal setting, is quite a daunting task, when you think about what you want to measure, how you are going to get the sample, what are the questions you are going to ask, testing them, then actually drawing the sample and going there and conducting the survey.
It all costs money and poses burden on people as well and then to bring that data, process it, analyse it and contextualise it, tabulate it and disseminate it, you are talking about somewhere between 18 months to two years as a timeline. In our case, we were able to launch and get people to start to give us data within literally a couple of months. The technology and the adoption of that technology allows us to launch something like that…we used social media methods, we talked to other stakeholders and they themselves got the message that this is important for Canada to understand what this activity looks like. What is the total consumption in Canada, both legal and illegal…so that interrelationship between the trust, innovation, creativity of our people and the need out there is really what fuels the creative sense of using data to get practical solutions.
You mentioned independence which has been a sticky point for your predecessor also. Here, in our country data privacy is being closely looked upon in context of Aadhaar. Won’t shifting to a technology-based data collection create challenges on the privacy and confidentiality front?
It’s absolutely critical. We do our work based on the currency of trust and protecting the privacy is a key component of that trust that’s established when citizens give us their information. It’s not just trust, we have statistical methods by which we actually encapsulate, codify and put it into our system. It’s absolutely crucial…It’s not just having a legal framework and saying that on the web, we protect the privacy. You actually have to embed it in the culture, in the systems, in processes and you have to be absolutely transparent in earning that trust in every single transaction with the population. So, yes, it raises new questions for sure and one has to continue earn the value by using that data but privacy is one of those things.
On some of the newer things like satellite mapping of crops, is that already on?
In fact, we do a crop yield survey entirely based on geo satellite data. We don’t go bother farmers on their yields. We have very good satellite imagery and working with our agricultural department. Algorithms allow us to look at the resolution and be able to say what is that crop and because of surface area then we can calculate the yields. It’s a high quality information because we can see the picture and our algorithms get better every single year, so we have that in production for a couple of years.
Will this work in the Indian context given the smaller farm holdings, the inter cropping?
It’s a guess on my part because I don’t know how much India has experimented with it or tried it out, but at least theoretically there is nothing unique about the algorithms or the satellite imagery or the ability to calculate those in Canada. Of course, the sizes of the farms would have to be looked at, the crop yields, different types of crops will have to be looked at in India but that’s the kind of innovation that’s being looked at all across the world.