2021 Census Dissemination Consultation Results: What we heard from Canadians

Release date: March 8, 2021

Summary of results

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The next Census of Population will be held in May 2021. With each census, Statistics Canada aims to improve its methods of dissemination in the publishing of census results; both in a timely and accessible manner while maintaining high data quality standards. A primary goal of the dissemination process is to ensure that users receive the maximum benefit from the Census of Population product and service line.

Consulting with census data users allows Statistics Canada to identify whether the products that were disseminated from the previous cycle were sufficient in meeting our users’ needs, while also identifying areas of improvement for the products, including new ideas or functionalities for products and tools that would be of benefit to data users.

Statistics Canada conducted its dissemination consultation process for the 2021 Census from winter 2019 to winter 2020, using both an online electronic questionnaire (EQ) and engaging in face-to-face discussions with various stakeholders.

Statistics Canada would like to thank all those who participated in this consultation. User feedback is necessary to ensure that we are meeting the needs and requirements of our data users, particularly in moving towards the planning of the product and service line, as well as determining the release strategy for the 2021 Census of Population.

Consultation process: Overview

The consultation process started in January 2019 and ended in March 2020. It involved a detailed online electronic questionnaire (EQ), in-person, and teleconference discussions with federal, provincial, territorial and local government departments, academia, international organizations, private sector, media, non-governmental organizations, and the general public.

The EQ, which was open for any user to complete (anonymously), included questions pertaining to: user satisfaction with the 2016 Census of Population product and service line; release strategies; frequency, use, and satisfaction of the various products within the 2016 Census of Population product line (including geography products); and satisfaction with custom services.

Statistics Canada received just under 1,000 online EQ submissions from many sectors of Canadian society from January 15 to March 31, 2019:

Statistics Canada also met with a number of known census data users from the various sectors listed above in order to better understand their uses and needs as it related to the 2016 Census of Population product and service line, and what users would like to see moving forward with the census products and services line for the 2021 Census of Population. The objective of the in-person sessions was to have an open dialogue with known census data users in order to understand how Statistics Canada can serve their needs and priorities better with regards to developing and planning the dissemination strategy and product and service line for the 2021 Census of Population.

Focus of the summary

This summary focuses on the overall findings from both the online electronic questionnaire (EQ) and in-person discussions as they relate to the following four themes: (1) Timeliness, (2) Accessibility, (3) Discoverability, and (4) Interpretability.

Results of the 2021 Census Dissemination Consultation

I. Timeliness

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“(An) earlier release time would be appreciated. The more current the data, the more valuable.”

—Census data user

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The theme of ‘Timeliness’ is important when it comes to releasing data from the Census of Population and the overall release strategy. As data from the census provides a timely snapshot of the population and its demographic and socioeconomic characteristics every five years, it is important to users that they obtain that data as soon as possible for its various uses (policy, forecasting, planning, marketing, research, etc.). Through both the results of the online electronic questionnaire (EQ) and in-person consultation sessions, it was clear that census data users want the data as quickly as possible.

Respondents to the electronic questionnaire and participants in the in-person consultation sessions emphasized that an important component of timeliness comes in ensuring that users have access to a schedule that outlines the release dates and topics. This is to ensure that they can plan for anticipated workloads, that they have the necessary resources in place, and be able to respond to enquiries from their clients. The more information that Statistics Canada communicates to its users prior to releases, the better prepared they will be to handle the volume of data and information coming from the census releases.

Some users expressed concern with regards to census topics for major releases. Concerns included confusion over the two income releases (short form (2A), and long form (2B)); having certain topics available earlier (for example, education and labour) would be valuable for early analyses; and the inclusion of more release dates in the schedule for smaller releases of data would be beneficial.

Census data users informed Statistics Canada that timely access to data tables is most important to them as it relates to major census-day releases. Results from the EQ indicated that out of the suite of products that were disseminated on major release days for the 2016 Census, users were overwhelmingly most willing to give up or accept less videos if that made the releases more timely for 2021.

Although users felt that data products were the most important type of census product (out of data, analytical, reference, and custom products), analytical products (such as The Daily and the Census in Brief series) are also valued by census data users as they help to identify the larger trends that are occurring. Users appreciated being able to apply those trends in the analyses to their own geographies of interest.

With regards to the geographies that are available within data tables on major release days, a variety of geographies are required by census data users across the various sectors, with users using data to the dissemination area (DA) level. The faster that users are able to have access to the various levels of geographies, the more useful (and relevant) the data is for all sectors, including the general public.

In addition to timeliness as it relates to the dissemination of standard products (i.e., those census products available on Statistics Canada’s website), timeliness is also important when it comes to custom products requested by Statistics Canada’s clients. Throughout the consultation period, some users noted that improvements could be made to custom product services when it came to the time it took between the initial request of a product to receipt of that product. The cost of custom products can also prove to be a barrier for some users. It should be noted that despite there being room for improvement in obtaining custom products, users who had ordered custom products or services were very satisfied with the staff who handled their requests.

II. Accessibility

The theme of ‘Accessibility’ encompasses the census products that users find valuable for their use, those they do not, how they are using those products, the download formats being used, and where users feel that improvements can be made within Statistics Canada’s products and in adding new products.

For data products that were accessed in calendar year 2019, the top four 2016 Census of Population products were: the 2016 Census Profile, Topic-based tabulations, Focus on Geography Series (FoGS), and Population and dwelling count highlight tables (source: Census Product Information Tracking System (CPITS)). The results for 2020 echo the popularity of these four products.

Results from the EQ showed that the Census Profile is a very useful data product, as it serves many various needs amongst different user sectors. Users informed Statistics Canada that improvements could be made by adding the ability to compare more than two geographies at one time; breaking up the geographies more in the download files; making smaller download files available; and, publishing ‘target group’ profiles (that replicate a fixed profile for a custom target group (such as a specific linguistic group)).

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“Data should be publicly available with more cross-tabulations at lower levels of geography, particularly labour market and demographic details.”

—Census data user

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Through consultation, Statistics Canada learned that the data tables are what users really want access to the most, as users appreciate the cross-tabulation of variables and the ability to analyse the data with many variables involved. Some improvements that could be made to the data tables included: maintaining the consistency of groupings and collapses within variables for ease of historical comparison; ensuring the explanatory text in file downloads is in a ‘clean’ format for database loading; producing more tables at the dissemination area (DA) level of geography; and, publishing classifications within tables at a more granular level (e.g., NAICS, NOC).

With regards to feedback received for the more ‘visual’ census products, the Focus on Geography Series (FoGS) is considered a useful product due to the combination of tables and text, as well as historical data. Users noted that it is a well-built product for those who are less-versed in statistics and for those users who just want an overall snapshot of a select geographic area. The Census Program Data Viewer (CPDV), while a useful product and the functionalities within it are appreciated by users who have accessed it, there were users who noted that it takes a bit of time to learn how to use the product. It was suggested that the marketing of the product could be improved with regards to the name of the product. It was also suggested that an overall product map could be produced, explaining the differences between the products and their intended use or features. Some new interactive charts were produced in 2016 which were appreciated by users, with some noting that a dashboard version of the interactive charts would be useful, where users can manipulate different components of the charts.

With regards to customization of census data and output format requirements, respondents to the EQ who downloaded smaller tables (defined as under 100,000 data points or cells) informed Statistics Canada that ‘CSV’ (comma-separated value) format is required most often. Users that download larger tables (over 100,000 data points or cells), require IVT download format most often, followed by CSV and XML. For users that downloaded both smaller and larger tables, ‘CSV’ was reported as the most required data download output format requirement.

As for the software that EQ respondents reported using when working with downloaded census data for smaller tables (tables under 100,000 data points or cells), results showed that Microsoft Excel was the most used software. For larger tables (tables over 100,000 data points or cells), respondents reported using Beyond 20/20 (IVT format) most often, followed by Microsoft Access. It is worth noting that many census data users indicated that they want to continue accessing census data tables in Beyond 20/20 (IVT) format, due to the functionalities that Beyond 20/20 offers.

Possible data table features that users would like to see include full data table downloads, customizable download files, and web data services.

III. Discoverability

The theme of ‘Discoverability’ examines users’ ability to find data within the census product line. Being able to locate census products on the Statistics Canada website and within the Census Web Module is essential to users’ experience with the products.

Census data users indicated that it was challenging to search within the ‘Census Module’ and the overall Statistics Canada website. They struggled to find the correct lexicon to retrieve data based on variables and topics, often using a search engine such as Google and bookmarking those products they needed to return to.

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“It is very difficult to navigate and find the information needed. It’s overwhelming. It takes a lot of time to understand how everything links together.”

—Census data user

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For data that is accessed once in a while or on an ‘as needed’ basis, users found it difficult to re-trace steps to find a previously found product. Some census data users indicated that you have to know what you’re looking for in order to find it. There is such an abundance of data available that it is hard to know whether what you found is the best thing you could have found, or if something better exists. There were several suggestions to incorporate a ‘top web hits’ into the search function to bring up relevant results. A product ‘map’ would also be helpful in directing users to the appropriate product for their data needs.

Users did find that it is helpful to have a separate entry point into census products (i.e., the ‘Census Module’). They also found that having all of the standard tables in one place (e.g., data tables by topic) made it easy to browse available data tables. The ability to browse by variable category was mentioned as being helpful for discovering new tables.

In terms of users’ ability to search within the ‘Census Module’ and within Statistics Canada’s overall website, users noted that they struggled to find the correct terminology to retrieve data based on variables and topics, often using an Internet search engine and ‘bookmarking’ those census products they needed to return to once finding them.

IV. Interpretability

Having access to products that help in understanding and interpreting census data is an absolute necessity. The products that assist with interpreting census data include analytical products (such as the Census in Brief series and The Daily articles) and reference products (including the Census Dictionary, the Preview of Products and Services, Release and Concepts Overviews, and technical reports).

Census data users informed Statistics Canada both through EQ results and in-person consultation sessions that the Census in Brief series and The Daily articles are useful products. Many data users indicated that they access the Census in Briefs series in order to read the ‘headline’ trends in the data. The Daily is accessed for the most part, on a major release day in order to read the ‘headlines’ of the data and then explore new data within census data products.

With regards to reference products, overall, results from the EQ indicated that the Census Dictionary and the Guide to the Census of Population were the two most used products. Data users that Statistics Canada met with during the in-person consultation sessions underlined the importance of the Census Dictionary as a pillar to understanding all of the census variables and concepts. Users appreciated that the Dictionary was released in a ‘Portable Document Format’ (PDF), as it makes finding variables by keyword much easier than in the HTML version where users have to click in and out of various definitions. The Guide to the Census of Population acts as the definitive overview for the whole process of the census at Statistics Canada. Users refer to it to answer questions from clients and to understand the process of the Census of Population.

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“When concepts or variables have changed, either by definition or by content collected/disseminated, these need to be clearly identified in resource documentation.”

—Census data user

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Users appreciate knowing as much information as possible before major releases of census data, and the Release and Concepts Overview product helps in this regard. The more prepared users are to consume and work with the data, the better they are able to perform their job. Census data users appreciate knowing and learning about new variables and concepts, learning how to compare new variables to historical ones, and what they can expect to be released for major releases. This product also assists clients in planning custom census requests with Statistics Canada’s Regional Offices.


The 2021 Census Dissemination Consultation sought to understand the needs, priorities, and requirements of census data users through four key themes: (1) Timeliness, (2) Accessibility, (3) Discoverability, and (4) Interpretability.

Through the electronic questionnaire and in-person consultation sessions, census data users informed Statistics Canada that above all, they want access to data in a timely manner. They want to be able to access that data mainly, through data tables, while having some analyses available in order to identify trends within their own places of interest. In supporting their statistical literacy and ability to comprehend census data, reference materials remain a pillar within the census product and service line for our data users. Census data also needs to remain easily searchable within the Statistics Canada website for its users, with the most comprehensive method being maintaining a web module that keeps census products together.

Statistics Canada is currently using the results gathered through this consultation, including what was learned from known census data users during in-person consultations, to inform the release strategy, including the product and service line, for the 2021 Census of Population.

In an effort to be forthcoming leading up to the dissemination of 2021 Census data, and to continue our engagement with our data users, Statistics Canada will publish information on a regular basis as planning for dissemination continues, by way of a web module that will detail the release strategy, as well as what users can expect from the product and service line. This web module will be available in April/May 2021.

Once again, thank you to all who participated in the 2021 Census Dissemination Consultation. Your feedback has been valuable.

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