There is nothing Orwellian about collecting accurate, real-time data: Barrie McKenna

Good commentary. Given the Conservatives legacy in downgrading the Census to the less accurate National Household Survey in 2011, their record on these kinds of issues is suspect.

And, as McKenna notes, “Worse than Big Brother is Blind Brother:”

To hear Conservatives spin it, Statistics Canada’s plan to gather the banking and spending records of hundreds of thousands of Canadians is akin to “Big Brother on steroids” and an “Orwellian intrusion into the lives of Canadians.”

The truth isn’t nearly as sinister. Rest assured, the government is not plotting a massive surveillance campaign to find out what you ate for lunch or your monthly mortgage payment.

Guess what? Ottawa already has your social insurance number – because it gave it to you. And it has your tax returns.

The government does, however, need better data to provide a complete and accurate portrait of Canada’s economy and society, in real time. As part of a “modernization” of its operations, Statscan wants banks, cellphone companies, retailers and other companies to share more of the so-called big data they have, and leverage them for the collective public good.

As Canada’s chief statistician Anil Arora put it: “Traditional statistics gathering methods are no longer sufficient to accurately measure Canada’s economy and social changes.”

Yes, some of the information Statscan wants to gather is personal. But all personal identifiers, including names, addresses and social insurance numbers, would be removed before any of it is compiled and released to the public. That’s what the agency already does routinely with census data, the monthly household survey and vast amounts of competitively sensitive corporate information.

Statscan has been peeking into our lives for a long time. Unfortunately, response rates from the agency’s traditional surveys have been falling, leaving it with often suspect and outdated data to feed into its key reports. The agency says getting access to financial transactions is vital to producing a timely, accurate picture of the economy.

As it should, Statscan is working closely with the federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien to ensure personal data are not put at risk, or shared publicly. It’s up to Mr. Therrien, who last week launched an inquiry into Statscan’s big data pilot project, to set the rules, and then let the agency do its job.

Statscan is hardly unique. Statistics agencies around the world are similarly leveraging big data for public policy purposes. And that’s unambiguously a good thing, according to University of British Columbia economist Kevin Milligan.

“This research is vital to forming good government policy and providing good economic information to the private sector,” Mr. Milligan says. “Statistics Canada should and does work with the privacy commissioner to balance the good that comes from research to the potential challenges to privacy.”

It’s ludicrous to suggest Ottawa is spying on Canadians. What Statscan is doing is tapping into what the private sector already knows about all of us, and aggregating it for public consumption.

If you’re seriously concerned about letting others see your financial records, shopping habits and internet surfing behaviour, well, that horse left the barn a long time ago.

Just think for a minute what companies such as Toronto-Dominion Bank, Bell, Facebook, Google, Amazon or the operator of the Highway 407 toll road already know about what you did today, or in the past month. Stitch it all together, and it’s your life in bits and bytes.

Canadians should be more concerned that there are adequate controls over what these companies are doing with your data. Perhaps Canada’s big banks are resisting giving your data to Statscan because they are more interested in exploiting it themselves.

The more ominous privacy threat may not be Statscan. The greater risk may lie with the major private-sector collectors of big data, many of which are foreign owned and store it all far beyond the reach of the government. And they often operate with far weaker privacy constraints than government agencies.

Governments already know plenty about you. There are census data, passport photos and records, tax filings, municipal property records, health records, driving offences and court records. No reasonable person would suggest this is somehow part of a nefarious Big Brother spying plot.

The agency’s data-collection pilot is not the problem. It is part of the solution. For years, Statscan’s ability to do its job was eroded by steady budget cuts. The current Liberal government reinstated some that funding in this year’s budget, with an additional $41-million over five years to improve the agency’s ability to do its job.

Worse than collecting more data is having a data deficit. Governments, and businesses, risk making major mistakes without accurate, real-time data.

Worse than Big Brother is Blind Brother.

Source: There is nothing Orwellian about collecting accurate, real-time data: Barrie McKenna

ICYMI: Moving past diversity: RBC’s journey to rid its upper ranks of ‘unconscious bias’

Good interview with outgoing RBC CEO Gord Nixon and taking diversity and inclusion to the next level and making people aware of unconscious bias. Well worth reading:

Diversity is about mix. Inclusion is really putting that mix to work for you. This unconscious-bias work, when we started last year, we had (esteemed scholar and co-author of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People) Dr. Mahzarin Binaji come and speak with our senior leadership team and other employees. We really felt it was the next frontier of this work — trying to get to the more subtle issues and the more politically incorrect or more difficult to speak about (because bias is not an easy thing to talk about). We are working to really get people to become self-aware. And I think along with that it’s also realizing that having a bias doesn’t make you a bad person. We all have them. What’s important is recognizing them and then looking for ways to actually mitigate those biases. We’re doing this in a number of different ways. One is just for individuals — influential individuals (people who make important decision in the company). We really had a lot of our senior people go through this awareness building. I hear leaders say, “I was putting together a team to be working with this important client and as I was looking at people I was going to select, I realized that I was actually looking for somebody like me.” That’s often what your natural bias is.

I think maybe to provide a very practical example. Sometimes you find people assuming that a woman with young children won’t accept a promotion that involves travel because you heard about some woman who did it. The answer there is, don’t assume that. Ask the woman if she is interested in being a candidate for a role that involves travel. Our assumptions and our biases get us there automatically. Or, you think, “This is a new immigrant and why is it relevant to understand how they do banking in a different country?”. Actually, it’s very relevant because we have new immigrants coming to this country and understanding how they do banking allows us to serve them better. So, those are the practical aspects, practical issues that we try to address when they actually happen by having good processes.

You need somebody else to be there and stop you and say, “Hey, I think we might have a bias here” and by making this a more common language in our organization — by talking about it and by having the sessions — it gives you permission to have those conversations and it just makes it easier to go there where sometimes you’re not sure or you don’t want to offend people. This just makes it part of how we do business.

Moving past diversity: RBC’s journey to rid its upper ranks of ‘unconscious bias’ | Financial Post.

The report, by RBC and EY, also well worth reading:

Outsmarting our brains: Overcoming hidden biases to harness diversity’s true potential