Do you Know the North

June 8, 2015 - I give a lot of talks about what is going on in Northern Ontario. Those sessions require me to cite data, lots of data: demographic data, health data, education data, economic data, and more. One of my favourite experiences is the quiet visit after the talk by some local expert. Often a subject expert or a local councilor or public servant. They almost always want to assure me that while they understand that the data I have just described applies to the region, or the district, or the province; it just doesn’t apply to their community.

Things are different here, their situation is unique. If I just talk to them, they will be able to demonstrate that the numbers are wrong, that they (and sometimes only they) know what is really going on. I always try to take them up on the offer. Sometimes hard numbers collected locally do indeed demonstrate that there is a different local trend or a unique twist on a larger problem.

More often than not however, the “evidence” supplied to demonstrate things are “different here” is about their cousin Bob, their neighbour Mary, or the local pharmacist and how they just were not able to make a go of things. Not data, but anecdotes (well, it actually is data, of a type, just not robust enough by itself to prove anything).

This is a very human thing, extrapolating our own experiences and assuming that the rest of the world, or just the people next door, look and act exactly the same way. In the realm of public policy making this tendency gives rise to something called executive paternalism. Someone in a position of authority decides that the government should do something because what they have heard, and therefore what they know, suggests they should. This process is the bane of data driven decision-making. We do things not because we know they will work, or have worked in the past, but because they sound good to someone with the authority to make them happen. The problem is we rarely look back to see if they were right.

We do this, our governments do this, not because we (or they) are bad people intent on pulling a fast one. We do it largely because we don’t know any better. The data isn’t readily available at the time the decision has to be made or the data that is available isn’t complete. In effect, we make the best decision we can with the information available. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. Sometimes the information available, to put it bluntly, just sucks. This is why economists and policy makers across the country are up in arms over the termination of the long form census.

But the census isn’t the only means to collect reliable and comparable data about what is going on in your community or in your neighbourhood. Recall my earlier example of hard data, collected locally, that reliably shows a unique twist or that better describes a broader trend. Those of us who live here do indeed, “Know the North”. Whether this is annual survey data from the local chamber, or one-off information collected from clients of an outreach program, the information is out there.

So over the next four months, eight summer interns from Northern Policy Institute will be contacting organizations across the north to ask them what they know about their community and how they know it. What questions do they ask? Who do they ask them of? How? What do they do with the information once they have it? Most importantly, are they willing to share it with others?

Think of it as crowd sourcing our own census. In my experience we collect a lot of information locally. Much, if not all of what is collected then usually ends up stuck on some forgotten flash drive.  What if instead we took all of that information and put it online, in a single location? A virtual northern data centre as it were. A common broom closet where we can all dump our data flotsam.

Perhaps, by putting it all in one place, and having lots of people sorting through it all the time, we will find ourselves better and more regularly informed. Not because the federal or provincial government decided to spend a little money or measure a particular thing, but simply because we decided to share with each other what we already know.

So, what do you say? Do you Know The North, and are you willing to share what you know with others? Over the next four months we will be putting you to the test.

Charles Cirtwill is President and CEO of Northern Policy Institute. An independent social and economic think tank based here in Northern Ontario. (Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Northern Ontario Business).

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