CANSIM for Entrepreneurs Put it to Work for You

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By Eva Bozzato

Making sense of Statistics Canada’s vast CANSIM1 database can seem like a daunting challenge for ordinary small and medium business mortals. After all, CANSIM is the go-to database government economists use to retrieve complicated national level numbers — the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for instance.

And, the giant corporations that use CANSIM can afford to hire statistical specialists whose job it is to mine CANSIM data for making corporate decisions.  So what can it offer you, a small business entrepreneur, whose first love is the daily hands on involvement with running your business and whose second shift is often devoted to paying the bills and tending to invoices late into the night?  You have information needs as well.

You may need to diagnose your growth potential in your market or get an overview of your competition. Perhaps you have already ventured a CANSIM query or two online only to be discouraged by the mysterious data tables that did not seem to have relevance to your day-to-day operations. So here’s the good news:  National level indicators, such as the GDP, are based on the compiled, local level data collected through Statistics Canada surveys across Canada — data that’s relevant to your business and your customers. With a little practice and help, you can access information in the CANSIM database too.

Since February 2012, the entire CANSIM database has been free online to anyone who wants to search it. Statistics Canada introduced a new interface to make navigating CANSIM easier.  An explanation of a few key terms and search functions should clear up some of the mystery about what you see in the data tables. A test run, or demonstration, of an actual query will reveal CANSIM’s potential for almost endless data customization to your business needs — in your region, your municipality, and in some cases, even your community.

The steps are illustrated with screen shots from the Statistics Canada website, but you can also make this an interactive experience by following along with your computer. Try it out for yourself.  The CANSIM interface is on the Statistics Canada homepage at statcan.gc.ca. Or, just type “CANSIM” into your search engine.

Where to Begin

Understanding what’s in CANSIM is a good starting spot. It’s a warehouse of monthly, quarterly or annual social and economic data—the entries number in the millions. CANSIM houses the results of Statistics Canada’s social and economic surveys.  The database is updated daily with survey results as they are released. 

Just as in any well-run warehouse, the contents are organized by categories, which in this case are subject and survey, as indicated by the tabs on the “Search CANSIM” page.

Select a subject or click on the “Survey” tab to choose from among the surveys that are used to collect the information.  If you still don’t see exactly what might address your information needs, that’s not a problem. Just enter what you are looking for in the search box.   

Starting a CANSIM search

Let’s say, for example, you own a local, residential household service business in Montreal that involves a lot of travel with your small fleet of company vehicles.   Now you want to explore expansion into the Toronto area and need to estimate the fuel costs for operating your vehicles in both Montreal and Toronto.  Next , you want to get some average fuel costs for the two cities from the CANSIM database. Enter “gasoline prices” in the search box at the top of the page and click “search.” Here’s the next page you will see.

The results page displays a chart of the titles, descriptions and table numbers where the “gasoline prices” information may be found. Click on Table # 326-0009, the table most likely to contain what you seek in this case.

The next steps involve customizing the table so that it shows you exactly what you want to know.  Before doing that, it would be useful to be familiar with some terms that can help you make sense of the table.

Four key terms you should know:  geography, time series, variables and indexes

The geography refers to the physical location.  You will see the Greater Montreal and Toronto listed in the table. But if you want to drill down to specific areas within those cities, click on the square bracketed numbers to display a list of Census subdivisions2 .

The time series is the gasoline price data collected between two points in time, measured at regular intervals such as monthly, quarterly or annually.  If the service you offer is seasonal, you may be interested only in fuel prices in a particular quarter.

The variables, as the term implies, are what varies from one point in time to the next—in this case the gasoline prices.

And the indexes measure the percentage the variable, or price of gasoline, has changed up or down from one time point to the next.

Customizing your data table

Table # 326-0009 shows you all the geographies, including Montréal and Toronto, and the average gasoline prices for the last five months.  But, you may need to see more, perhaps trends over several years.  Use the tabs across the top of the table to get what you want. If you have vehicles or equipment that use diesel, you have the option to customize for that as well. Do you want to see prices going back three years?  You can set the time series to display the time frame you select.  You can even choose how you want the data to be displayed in a table.

Under the “Add/Remove data” tab, follow the five steps that guide you through limiting the geography, in this case Montreal and Toronto.  Notice that you can further limit the geography you want to search if you click on the square-bracketed number next to the city name, which opens a window listing Census subdivisions.

Under the “Manipulate” tab, you can change the frequency of your selected time series.  Do you prefer the gasoline prices quarterly to reflect a spring and summer busy season?  Do you have a unique fiscal year?  Maybe you want to see the indexes, or percentage changes. You can customize for these here.

Do you want to make your table portable or shareable?  Enter your file display preferences under the “Download” tab.

The “Related information” tab will take you to any other information, reports or analyses related to “gasoline prices” published by Statistics Canada.

Then there’s the “Help” tab to offer further guidance.

A CANSIM Test Run

Let’s see what customized table would emerge for you, a hypothetical residential household services entrepreneur.  You select for the entire Montreal and Toronto geographies, regular unleaded gasoline at self servicing gas stations and for a time frame between June 2010 and June 2012.

By customizing Table # 326-0009 to your specific preferences, you can find out exactly what you need to know. 

This is just one, very simple scenario to demonstrate the process for customizing your CANSIM data table.  You may have noticed along the way that there was also an option to display gasoline price indexes, the percent that the price changed up or down, which are useful seeing trends and estimating costs.

What else might a household services entrepreneur who is looking to expand into a new area want to know?  Residential construction starts for gauging growth in a community, income levels, demographics by geography or even average commuting times leap to mind. The growth or decline of competing services in an area would also be useful information.  You can customize CANSIM data tables to answer these and countless other queries. 

CANSIM Tutorial

If you are still not convinced that CANSIM is simple to use, Statistics Canada has created a five-minute video tutorial that demonstrates how to do searches on the CANSIM interface.  To link to the tutorial, click on “About CANSIM” on the CANSIM main page, and you will see the link to the tutorial.

It’s true that the factual information contained in the CANSIM database is a useful resource for all levels of our government and for big corporations because it contains the overarching socioeconomic information that’s essential for formulating national policies and decisions. However, it’s also true that CANSIM belongs to all Canadians, including entrepreneurs for whom factual information is just as important. Statistics Canada’s new CANSIM interface now makes it simpler to access the data you need to support your business decisions, big or small.

Take CANSIM for a test run with your own queries. Still not finding what you need? Call 1-800-263-1136.  Statistics Canada agents are ready to take your call on regular weekdays between 8:30 and 4:30.  Or if you prefer, email us: infostats@statcan.gc.ca. We welcome your questions. 

CANSIM is a registered trademark of Statistics Canada and is an official mark adopted and used by Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada as represented by the Minister of Industry Canada.

Area that is a municipality or an area that is deemed to be equivalent to a municipality for statistical reporting purposes (e.g., as an Indian reserve or an unorganized territory). Municipal status is defined by laws in effect in each province and territory in Canada.

Eva Bozzato was a communications specialist in Statistics Canada’s Communication Division until retiring in October 2012. For questions about the article, please contact Marc Bazinet at marc.bazinet@statcan.gc.ca

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