Blog May 18, 2022

The Last Mile of Democratizing Economic Data


By: Patrick Gill, Senior Director, Operations & Partnerships, Business Data Lab (@PatrickNGill)

Data can inform, equalize and empower. It has become one of the most valuable resources in the world today. Although data is generated by all and surrounds all, not everyone uses it to gain insight.

Accessing and leveraging economic data remains a massive challenge for small businesses or non-profit associations in Canada. For these organizations, the dominant challenges are knowing what information is available, accessing it and then using it to create actionable insights to make better decisions. In practical terms, smaller organizations face the analogous and continuous challenge of the transportation and logistics industry, known as “the last mile.” This challenge refers to the very last part of a person or package’s journey to a final destination. For instance, just as the journey’s end of transit commuters is not a train, subway or bus stop, but their workplace or home. So too for many small businesses, the final destination of economic data is not a data warehouse or a scholarly article, but a concrete business decision or a more strategic business plan. To benefit from the world’s ever-expanding data resources (as many large organizations are already doing), smaller organizations need to travel the last mile of their data needs, and many need help doing so.

That is why an exciting new partnership between the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and Statistics Canada holds so much promise for helping smaller organizations travel the last mile of their economic data needs. The Canadian Chamber recently launched its Business Data Lab to work with Statistics Canada to acquire, consolidate and curate data on Canadian business conditions and to produce future-focused, real-time insights on emerging conditions and trends. The Business Data Lab will share these insights across the Canadian Chamber network – 450 non-profit organizations representing over 200,000 Canadian businesses – to inform decision-making.

While collaboration is a common approach for the Canadian Chamber’s work, Statistics Canada is now actively fostering innovative partnerships with groups such as the Business Data Lab as part of the agency’s strategic direction to meet the growing demand for data, data services and insights.

From its genesis, the Canadian Chamber believed the Business Data Lab could further democratize data for smaller organizations. Data democratization is the process of helping others, regardless of their ability to work with data comfortably (data literacy), to access data more easily and to use data comfortably to make informed decisions. The prospect of further democratizing data was reinforced for the Canadian Chamber through its Business Data Lab discovery consultations with over 80 stakeholders’ groups during February and March 2022. These interactive conversations with stakeholders reaffirmed that the last mile of data challenges of smaller organizations falls into three categories:

  1. For public data, the first challenge is navigating a plethora of information sources to understand what data is available and relevant for particular uses. In the Canadian Chamber’s discussions with stakeholders, most of which are small organizations, it was lamented that good data was not available on internet coverage in northern Canada. However, even as this point was being discussed, a participating Statistics Canada representative shared a link to public results from the agency’s latest Northern Canada Internet Use Survey. While data gaps unquestionably exist, a bevy of high-quality data is already publicly available, but users often do not know where it is. The Business Data Lab hopes to address this last-mile challenge for smaller organizations by crowdsourcing their data needs and research priorities and then devoting time to searching, gathering and exploring the data available on their behalf.

  2. For data that is privately curated and held, the main challenge is likely the cost of accessing the many emerging sources. The Canadian Chamber’s stakeholder conversations revealed that the economic data most desired by its national network was ultra-localized business condition indicators. While many local business insights can be produced from public sources, such as Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey and Census, other insights might be achieved only through alternative data sources that are privately held, such as real-time mobility and payments information. For instance, with anonymized payment data, it is now possible to generate an advanced snapshot of local spending; with internet scrapping algorithms, real-time tracking of business openings and closures is possible. Anonymized mobile data could supplement these insights to help explore workforce, transportation and tourism patterns. However, obtaining, organizing and curating mobile and payment information is expensive and beyond the financial resources of the typical small business or non-profit organization. The Business Data Lab will help address this last-mile challenge for such organizations by leveraging its resources and relationships with data suppliers to acquire alternative datasets.

  3. Exploring and generating insights from data can test a small organization’s comfort zone or capability. Using mobility and payments data to generate local business insights often requires specialized skills and software that most small organizations typically do not have. The Business Data Lab will help address this last-mile challenge by acting as a service hub to generate business insights for the Canadian Chamber’s national network.

As every organization has its own needs and circumstances, these last-mile challenges will be difficult to overcome, but three aspects of the Business Data Lab could help further democratize economic data.

  1. The Business Data Lab could help by consolidating and acquiring economic data of greatest relevance to small businesses and business organizations. Two things make this goal achievable. First, repeated outreach to the Canadian Chamber’s national network of 550 business associations could crowdsource and identify the business community’s challenges and priorities for economic data. Second, support from the Government of Canada means that new exploratory datasets, such as mobility and payments information generally beyond the reach of small businesses, could be obtained to generate insights of specific relevance.

  2. The Business Data Lab could help by generating relevant economic insights for decision-making. The Canadian Chamber has been producing future-focused insights on business conditions since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to support decision making during a period of rapid change. The Canadian Chamber will continue producing such analysis through its Business Data Lab, sharing it freely and publicly across its national network – akin to the hub-and spoke-model used by larger organizations or cooperatives. The Business Data Labs analysis will take shape in three forms: high-frequency data dashboards, quarterly business survey insights and focused research projects via reports and policy briefs. Already, 40 per cent of the Canadian Chamber’s national network is using its analyses for decision-making. The aim is to increase usage over the next two years with better communication and collaboration and by increasing the frequency and granularity of the analysis produced.  

  3. The creation of a Business Data Trust will foster cross-sectoral exploration of Canada’s future economic challenges and opportunities. Recognizing that most Canadians place great importance on how organizations protect and use data, the Canadian Chamber and Statistics Canada have championed the creation of a Business Data Trust for the Business Data Lab. The model is an innovative method of data governance – ideally suited for strengthening the public’s trust in data and distributing the valuable knowledge contained within it. In practical terms, data trusts are digital vaults or repositories managed by arm’s-length parties for a defined purpose. The governments of Canada and Quebec have jointly studied the application of data trusts for potential use with urban and healthcare data.

    All data consolidated and acquired for the Business Data Lab’s work will be housed within the Business Data Trust, managed at arm’s length by Statistics Canada. Not only will Statistics Canada have access to the data and knowledge within the Business Data Trust, but the Business Data Lab will also be able to invite other groups – including think tanks, non-profits and academic institutions – to work with the Business Data Lab on specific research projects. In this way, the Business Data Trust will act similar to a virtual Research Data Centre.

Over the next two years, the Government of Canada and Statistics Canada will be monitoring and evaluating this project and its outcomes. In this regard, the Business Data Lab will be developing use cases on smaller organizations’ data usage and data-driven business decisions.

This partnership is exciting for Statistics Canada and helps paves the way for the agency to make progress on other things, notes Nathalie Brault, Senior Director for the Centre for Special Business Projects at Statistics Canada, adding that this project will demonstrate the potential efficacy of existing data in producing actionable insights.

Canadian businesses have experienced rapid change over past two years. This level of disruption has underscored the importance of high-frequency, granular data on business conditions and trends. As the global and Canadian economies continue to recover from the pandemic, staying ahead of market changes will be critical for Canadian business success. Recognizing this lesson, the Canadian Chamber, through the Business Data Lab, is proudly establishing the data infrastructure to help smaller organizations in Canada to navigate the last mile of economic data they need to help build a more prosperous future for all Canadians.