Statistics Canada

Never reported: Torontonian uses big data and privacy expertise to create anonymous index of sexual assault

Laura Pedersen/National Post

Lauren Reid has a unique contribution to the ongoing conversation about unreported rapes and the climate for addressing sexual assault claims.

Raped three times — once in high school and twice in university — her jaw-dropping experience had never been documented in any official record or police report.

Now, the 30-year-old Toronto resident is using her professional background in big data and privacy to push for a national, anonymous, user-controlled and self-reported database on sexual assault.

It is an ambitious project, unprecedented in its scope, but it comes with its own set of complicated challenges and concerns.

Right now, the best self-reported data on sexual assault comes from Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey on Victimization, in which a random sample of Canadians are asked, out of the blue and by phone, if they have ever been sexually assaulted. The most recent survey shows 6% of Canadian women self-reported a sexual assault — a number that activists believe is under-representative. An oft-cited statistic that one in four Canadian women have been sexually assaulted is routinely picked apart.

“It took me 15 years to tell my story, so if you are sitting at home watching TV with your family and someone calls you and says ‘So have you been raped?’ who knows what you’re going to be ready to say at that time?” said Ms. Reid, who hopes to launch the database as part of her existing project, When You’re Ready.org — a place where survivors can share their stories in a supportive environment.

“The goal with When You’re Ready is to create a database that allows us insights into ‘Why didn’t you report it?’” among other things, she said.

The intention of this new database being proposed by Ms. Reid is to also try to gauge how many people are sexually assaulted more than once, if people didn’t know it was rape at the time, if they were drinking or drugged and so on. Users would enter their stories and add or change information any time. The database would need to maintain clear definitions of sexual assault, she said, and it would be fully anonymous — no naming of names allowed. Above all, the data would be in the users’ control and “de-identified,” likely using the Privacy by Design framework developed by former Ontario privacy commissioner and world-renowned privacy expert Dr. Ann Cavoukian, who said she applauds Ms. Reid’s vision.

Even those who support the intention of such a database worry about privacy concerns, legal implications and false reports.

“How do you know who’s submitting? How do you know it’s not a men’s rights activist?” said Irene Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer, executive director of the Women Against Violence Against Women rape crisis centre in Vancouver.

She is skeptical that privacy protections will be sufficient in an era of surveillance and hacking, and she feels that the numbers collected by Statistics Canada and rape crisis centres such as her own, which are shared with government, are enough.

“If this web-based platform seeks to influence the public that sexual assault is indeed an issue because of the numbers, then why is it not enough to know that currently there are approximately 472,000 self-reported sexual assaults in Canada every year?”

Holly Johnson, a criminologist with the University of Ottawa who studies violence against women, says the database could be “one source among others.

A former manager of the Statistics Canada victimization survey, she said those surveyors would build a rapport with the respondents and ask carefully worded questions about sexual assault using specific definitions that align with the Criminal Code of Canada.

Even so, many women did not want to answer the question.

“About 1,000 out of 12,000 called back and wanted to talk about it later,” she said.

Actress Lucy DeCoutere, the first woman to identify herself in connection with the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, said she supports Ms. Reid’s vision.

“It would allow women to feel like they have agency over their experience,” she said. “If people are starting to go through the process of reporting and have to go through the words a few times before they say them, this might be a stepping stone.”

But she also sees the drawbacks: Participants need to be sure they are ready to share their rape experiences before they submit their stories, and ideally there would be a trained team on the receiving end. And there are “humungous legal implications” too, she said, in that defence lawyers may comb a database like this looking for inconsistencies.

But, she said, “the best thing about this is it’s a conversation continue-r.”

Dr. Cavoukian is excited by the prospect of big data helping to drive an issue with such momentum even further ahead. Her Privacy by Design framework is based on the notion of individual consent and control. Casinos in Ontario use its biometric technologies to help problem gamblers stay out — again, with that problem gambler’s consent.

“There have been a lot of critiques about the numbers that have been collected. My guess is that this is highly under-reported,” said Dr. Cavoukian, who is now executive director of Ryerson University’s Privacy and Big Data Institute.

“If people felt confident that they could come forward without fear of reprisal or publicity, that they could just have a dialogue, I think you’ll be much more likely to get some real measures associated with this.”

Ms. Reid admits that this project won’t solve all the problems, but it is certainly better than the status quo.

“The purpose is to generate knowledge about a problem,” Ms. Reid said. “It isn’t to prosecute people.”

National Post

Laura Pedersen/National PostLauren Reid, a rape survivor and organizer of online community “When You’re Ready,” poses for a portrait in her apartment in Toronto, Ontario on Wednesday, January 14, 2015.

From Jixxr to Jennifer: 25 top facts on the year in popular (and not so popular) baby names

B.C., Nova Scotia and Manitoba released their annual lists of top baby names this week, revealing only minor changes from year to year, or region to region. Like the names in almost every other province, they feature a collection of strong, two- and three-syllable names with lots of “l”s, “m”s, and “n”s. They also reveal some Canadians’ desire to make their kid stand out from the crowd, even if that means his name is Jixxr. The National Post‘s Jen Gerson has compiled a list of the top 25 baby name facts, in Canada and elsewhere. We know you’ll read it:

  1. There is little regional variation in baby names in Canada. The most popular names in B.C. generally reflect the most common names in Ontario.
  2. The most popular names for girls generally repeat across all provinces. This year, Olivia, Emma, Emily, Ava or Sophia made top five lists across the country.
  3. For boys, those names include Liam, Ethan, Lucas, Noah, William and Mason.
  4. In all of Canada, the most popular names were Olivia and Emma for girls, and Liam and Ethan for boys.
  5. Liam, a shortened form of William, means “strong-willed warrior and protector.”
  6. Olivia is the female form of Oliver. It means “olive tree.”
  7. According to Statistics Canada, an estimated 385,937 babies were born between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014.
  8. Most babies were born in Ontario and Quebec, with 142,448 and 88,250 newborns last year, respectively.
  9. The third most fertile province is Alberta. Almost 13,000 more babies were born in Alberta last year than in B.C., even though B.C. has a population that is larger by 560,000 people.
  10. Certain Atlantic provinces and Quebec bucked trends, preferring a more variable set of popular baby names.
  11. In two provinces, Newfoundland and P.E.I., the name Jaxon — from Jackson, or “son of Jack” — was among the most popular. With eight babies in 2013, Jaxon was tied for the fifth most popular name on P.E.I.
  12. Also tied for fifth place with eight babies in P.E.I. was Cohen. Although growing in popularity across North America, the use of the Jewish surname as a first name by non-Jews can be controversial. ‘‘The name Cohen is reserved for the priestly caste descended directly from the biblical Aaron,” one web site notes. The trend may have begun with The O.C.’s popular character Cohen, but you may also be able to blame Leonard.
  13. The most popular female name in P.E.I. in 2013 was Brooklyn (nine girls were thus named).
  14. Canadian names generally mirror popular American baby names. According to U.S. statistics, the most popular female names in 2013 were Sophia, Emma, Olivia, Isabella and Ava. For boys, Noah, Liam, Jacob, Mason and William topped the list.
  15. Quebec bucked trends in the rest of the continent with names like Lea, (625 babies) Florence (455), Alice (439), Samuel (704) and Alexis (699) rounding out top-five lists. Liam was nowhere to be seen among the top five.
  16. Popular culture maintains a compelling pull on the minds of new parents. Fantasy-genre Game of Thrones inspired one-off names like Catelyn, Daenarys, Osha, Sansa, Tyrion and Theon in Ontario and Alberta. There were 97 Aryas in Ontario, for example. The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter spawned a few real-life monikers.
  17. Last year, the Alberta government pointed out its most unique baby names of 2013. Individual newborns carried names like Urban, Hurricane, Logic, One, Alias, and Jixxr. Girls’ names included Eunique, Conshens, Tempest, Arrow, and Lava.
  18. Ontario highlighted proper places, including 43 Londons, 41 Viennas, and 16 Parises.
  19. Canadian celebrity names are also proving popular, including 15 Drakes, 10 Shanias, 10 Crosbies, and nine Avrils. (The rapper Drake’s first name, by the way, is Aubrey, while Shania Twain’s first name is actually Eilleen.)
  20. British Columbia offers an interactive database that tracks baby name popularity over the past 100 years. It shows that of the top five most popular girls’ names in the province — Olivia, Emma, Sophia, Emily and Ava — Olivia is gaining in popularity. About 300 babies per year are now given that name per year in B.C., double what it was 15 years ago. Sophia appears to have plateaued, at about 200 babies.
  21. In B.C., the popularity of the name Emma peaked in 2003 with 352 babies. Emily reached its peak in 2000 with 363 babies.
  22. For boys in B.C., Liam, Lucas, Benjamin and Mason appear to be growing in popularity. Ethan peaked in 2002 at 419 newborns, and is on the decline.
  23. B.C. only starts recording name usage once a name is used more than five times in a year; that database shows that virtually no one in B.C. was named Olivia before 1974.
  24. Similarly, the records show no Avas prior to 1988.
  25. No recent baby names have come close to the popularity of Jennifer, which was the top female baby name in the U.S. between 1970 and 1984. There is no comparable data in Canada, but the trend seems to have held true here as well; in B.C., for example, 764 Jennifers were named in 1984. In 2013, that number had fallen to 15.