Monday, May 29, 2006

statistical blunders

I have not written much lately. Nor have I read much, exercised much, ate much or slept much. Who knew when I took the job with Statistics Canada that it would become so consuming?

Census 2006 was 13 days ago, so one would think we would be wrapping up our work and congratulating each other on a job well done. Not quite.

I have been working in the part of Census that deals with collectives - which is any dwelling where several people live together and share some facilities, such as hotels, nursing homes, group homes, convents and rooming houses. I have about 150 collectives which I am responsible for - in the west end of Ottawa and in a few towns north-west of the city.

Obviously we couldn't be everywhere on May 16th - and in fact the enumerators working for me have a schedule they are to follow which tells them on what days they should be enumerating each type of collectives. And this is where the mind-boggling logic of the Census process really shines.

For example, on Census Day we were supposed to enumerate every rooming house in our listing (which is my case was 14). But unlike nursing homes, hospitals and group homes where we only need to know the gender, date of birth and room number of each resident - people living in rooming houses were expected to complete a long census form. If any of you have every completed a long census questionnaire, you know that it asks very personal questions about employment, health, and income. And if any of you have spent much time in rooming houses you may also know that this is not a segment of the population who would want to tell a nosy government rep about such things.

Trying to contact residents of rooming houses (the most transient population after hotels) and then get them to fill out a lengthy form has gone beyond being frustrating. It borders on com├ędie noire.

True, we do get the occasional person willing to cooperate. One of my enumerators, a pretty young woman with a friendly face and manner, got stuck for over half an hour with a man recently out of jail. While not wanting to answer her questions, he wanted to keep her in his company as long as possible. I interviwed an elderly man who suffered a stroke in March and was equally grateful to have some company.

And as frustrating as the process is, the experience is sobering. We knock on rickety doors in dirty hallways of run-down buildings, meet people fighting to eke out a living, and others who have given up and resigned themselves to television and cigarettes in a small room on a noisy street. I am embarrassed for my intrusion.

In other collectives though, we get a much different welcome. "I felt like a rock star," said one of my enumerators. He went to a seniors residence where a table had been set up so he could enumerate the residents. They didn't wait for him to get settled before they crowded around him, calling out their names and room numbers. Some even returned to his table several times, having forgotten that they just completed the form 10 minutes ago.

I was scolded at one seniors home for not being there sooner. Again, in the baffling logic of the process, nursing homes - which are the most eager to be counted - were not to be contacted until after the 16th. By the afternoon of the 16th - when media across the city was telling the public they could go to jail for not completing their Census forms - we had dozens of homes across Ottawa phoning all the way to head office at StatsCan asking why they had been over-looked. The first week after Census was filled with commands to drop everything and go enumerate a particular home. Squeaky wheel gets the grease and I was, according to my boss, the grease. How flattering.

It's been a hectic, scattered project that continually teeters of the brink of complete chaos. "You will never be on top of everything," my manager tells me. Perhaps my desk will never get clear. Perhaps I will never find my way down from this mountain of paperwork.

Yet for all the stress, it is fascinating to have a chance to peek behind the curtains of so many lives. And when you spend your days collecting information on those whose residence is decided not by choice but by disability, failed health and poverty, you realize again just how lucky you are.


  1. Anonymous9:44 PM

    Who knew the government could be so inefficient? You've caused me to lose all faith in the democratic process.

  2. To the contrary, this sort of thing actually restores my faith in the democratic process. Because even with all these problems and inefficiencies and insanities, it still manages to work. That's stunning and amazing and incredible. Sure, we should work to minimize and streamline this sort of thing, but the main trick behind democracy is that we can muddle through.

    Much better than all the alternatives, anyway. :)