The census, that national survey of who we are and how we live, is taking a major step into the 21st century.
In 2006, enabled by the federal government’s secure channel initiative, the survey will be available to all Canadians online for the first time since we started the
Anil Arora, Statistics Canada’s 2006 census manager, says making the survey available online is only one of the changes the next census will undergo.
For example, the department is creating a database of all mailable addresses in the country so the census can be mailed to two-thirds of the households in the country (the rest will be hand-delivered); completed paper questionnaires will be processed at a central, high-security centre; and the registering, scanning, capture, editing and followup will all be automated.
Statistics Canada conducted some online pilot projects in 2001 and plans for a “dress rehearsal” in 2004, in which 300,000 dwellings and 20,000 farms in three areas (near Halifax, Winnipeg, Montreal and central Saskatchewan) will have the option of responding to either a paper or an online questionnaire.
“There are a number of fairly significant changes that respond to some concerns and now the technology is mature enough and proven enough in the census concept that it allows us to take some pretty bold steps to modernize the way a census is taken,” says Arora.
The department has set a target of 20 per cent takeup for the online option in 2006 – a significant increase over the six per cent of Canadians who filed the census online in 2001.
A number of improvements as well as increased marketing of the option should help achieve that target, Arora says.
“The 2001 application had to be downloaded from the Internet and it took quite a while over dial-up,” he says. “We had to look at how it worked on different browsers.” Another issue that had to be resolved, he adds, is that of the lengthy registration process the 2001 pilots required of users.
“The encryption technology was not there enough to allow online transactions without a lot of overhead and without having to require a huge registration process,” says Arora. “You’ve got to keep in mind that the census questionnaire for 80 per cent of households in Canada is short – seven to eight questions – so you can’t have a registration process that takes longer than the questionnaire.”
While not everyone will want or be able to fill out the census online, there is a considerable potential for cost reduction for StatCan, says Arora.
“It really is an investment for 2011 and beyond. Absolutely there are savings on the return side, because if we get an electronic return instead of paper, you do forgo paper and handling costs. That’s where we think the opportunities are in the future.”
According to Gary Cameron, vice-president of enterprise accounts at Bell Canada, online census-taking is only one potential use for the work that is being done on secure channel, a common and shared platform for program delivery. Bell is heading the consortium of companies – which includes CGI, IBM, Microsoft, Adobe, Canada Post, Cisco, Entrust and BCE Emergis – working on the 27-month-old project. “What we’re developing is extremely reusable for licensing applications or for a range of other types of applications,” he says. “In theory online voting could be an extension of all the development work we’re doing, One of keys is maximizing its reusability. We’re finding the first application takes more time and is more complex.”
The first application that was developed as part of the secure channel project is an online address change system for the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA).
“Changing your address with the CCRA doesn’t sound too sophisticated but it was selected as relatively innocuous,” says Cameron. “It uses the authentication service we built in secure channel. Authentication is essential for the Crown because the last thing they want is for someone to get in and pretend to be you and change your address a week before your tax refund cheque is issued… so it’s a real test of a very large-scale authentication service that uses PKI technology.”
Other applications that have been developed as part of secure channel include Human Resource Development Canada’s electronic record of employment filing system, and Industry Canada’s electronic payment system for business incorporation fees, called the Receiver General Buy Button. “Up until now government departments have been developing their own payment capability, and it’s not a simple thing because there’s a potential for fraud. Secure channel has a sophisticated payment capability that any government department can subscribe to and there are a variety of other departments that are accessing it and that are going to roll out this capability on their Web sites over the next three to four months,” Cameron says. Today the service requires users to pay with a credit card, but the future goal is to allow the use of debit cards as well.
“For many departments that’s what they’re waiting for because they don’t want to incur the cost of credit. We all think that online debit is the killer app.”