The federal government has announced that the census - run every five years in Canada - is being changed in 2011. The change which they seem to think is minor, is to spend $30 million more to send it out to more people, but to make most of the questions optional. They say the long form on the census is too intrusive, and the government threatening jail time is inappropriate.
In Canada, 80% of the population receives a short census form, with only five questions. 20% of the population receives a long form, with many more, very detailed questions - how many bedrooms in your home, how much money do you make, how far do you commute to work, etc. The census is required - everyone must complete it. If you don't, Statistics Canada will call you, visit you, remind you, pester you, and finally if nothing else works they will actually discuss the fines and potential for jail time. Like jury duty and paying taxes, a census is something required of residents.
The questions are very detailed, but Statistics Canada is very obsessive about privacy, to the point of not releasing census data from 100 years ago! In the past decade, the Privacy Commissioner has received only three complaints about the census in total.
The census is actually very important. Everything you do, every day, involves that data. The roads you travel on, the transit system - even where the bus routes go in your neighbourhood, the schools your kids attend, the community centres you swim at, the number of Members of Parliament supporting your city... the list goes on and on. Almost all large businesses use the census data as well.
The reason it's so important is that the census is a picture of the actual population. It's not estimated, extrapolated, or guessed-at. If the long form becomes voluntary, then the most vulnerable in your community - who are known to self-report less - will be at greater risk and have fewer resources available to them. The upper middle-class and rich will end up over-represented, and this is the group which many of us fall into -- you've got a computer and high speed internet, and a job? you're probably richer than you like to think.
Anyway. This is a big problem. This affects you. If this change stands, it will actually hurt our ability to effectively and efficiently provide government services, care for our less fortunate, and even just understand where everybody lives.
"Clement’s statistical illiteracy is so profound it gives one vertigo. The notion that simply making the sample bigger can’t fix a skewed sample is something undergraduates learn in first-year classes, yet is somehow beyond the mental grasp of a senior minister of a G8 country. And the comedic benefit of watching Clement fail first-year economics is undermined by the cold realization that he fundamentally does not understand the intellectual foundations of the files that he controls. When he is cornered by his intellectual betters, moreover, Clement’s instinct is to reach for the debating-hall comforts of cheap populism."
See the actual questions from 2006: http://www12.statcan.ca/IRC/english/ccr03_005_e.htm