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Breaking Down Data Disaggregation


In the dynamic landscape of data-driven decision-making, one concept stands out as an unsung hero behind insightful analysis and informed strategies: data disaggregation. When it comes to data, going beyond brief overviews can lead to richer insights and targeted actions. Let us dive deeper into this concept—why do we disaggregate data, and what should we consider when doing it? 

What is data disaggregation?

Bronze head of a woman with hair formed by 3D pixels.

Data disaggregation involves breaking data into smaller parts to better understand a situation and make more informed decisions. Instead of dealing with broad averages, this approach allows you to slice through the layers of data to reveal intricate details, enabling a deeper understanding of complex phenomena. 

Example 1: Spending habits

You noticed you’ve been setting aside much less money towards your savings lately, so you decide to look at your credit card statement to better understand where your money has been going. It becomes clear that those frequent Amazon purchases have been increasing. While your credit card statement keeps track of all your Amazon transactions, it labels them as a generic “Amazon” charge, which highlights the lack of available data for a more detailed disaggregation. To better understand your spending habits, you look at your receipts. It turns out you’ve spent a bit too much on supplies for your gardening hobby despite not having a yard.

Example 2: Population income

You’re looking at a Canadian population income dataset. It provides an overview of the average income of the entire population. It could be used, for instance, to compare Canadian incomes to those of other countries. However, if you disaggregate the data, you’ll gain a more nuanced understanding of what is going on. For example, it might reveal disparities in income across different demographics, highlighting areas where certain groups earn significantly more or less. Depending on how the data was collected, you can analyze it using categories such as age, gender and geographic location. By disaggregating the data into slices reflecting different demographics or features of the data, you can uncover precious insights for making better policies and taking specific actions where they are needed most.

From numbers to action and impact 

Senior leaders, including deputy ministers, should take action to embed data activities and needs in initiatives from the start, inform their decisions using disaggregated data, and assess the data skills needed for managers and teams. – 2023-2026 Data Strategy for the Federal Public Service 

Disaggregated data can reveal nuanced insights, expose disparities and lead to informed decisions that are essential to advancing equity, improving governance, and delivering tailored services to people in Canada. Here are some examples of the use of disaggregated data:  

  • Policy development: Disaggregated data helps policy-makers create more effective policies by helping identify the unique needs of different groups. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how a single event can affect different groups in diverse ways, exposing pre-existing social and economic disparities. It also highlighted the significance of disaggregated data in shaping recovery plans and programs, enabling them to be tailored to address community needs and mitigate these inequalities. 
  • Equity and social justice: Uncovering inequities allows for the development of less biased policies.  
  • Resource allocation: Whether it is budgetary funding, staffing, or infrastructure, having granular data at your disposal allows for precise distribution of resources and targeted allocation. 
  • Service delivery: Public servants can tailor services to groups with specific needs by leveraging disaggregated data, resulting in improved efficiency and service quality. For example, when examining program delivery times in different regions or contexts, a department can adjust its service standards to enhance how predictable the service is to clients. 
  • Adaptability: Government departments and agencies can respond more promptly to shifting demographics and trends, which in turn allows for better economic planning and development of the workforce. For example, by analyzing population data and employment trends, they can proactively adjust educational and training programs to ensure that the workforce is equipped with the skills needed for emerging industries, thus fostering economic growth and job opportunities. 
  • Transparency and trust: Using disaggregated data contributes to showing that decision-making is objective and transparent—most particularly when the data is available to the public. 

Disaggregated data, trust and inclusivity 

In part, the strength of disaggregated data lies in its ability to zoom into specific demographic groups, revealing trends and patterns that might remain hidden in aggregated data. However, for marginalized communities, providing data to researchers can cause hesitation and concern. 

Historically, some communities have been subjected to surveillance, discrimination, or misuse of their data, leading to valid apprehensions about the possibility of being further stigmatized or targeted. The mistrust stemming from systemic injustices can make these communities wary of how their data will be used and to what end. 

Couples from various ethnic backgrounds wearing traditional clothing.

Addressing these concerns requires prioritizing trust building and transparency with marginalized communities. This can be achieved by involving community representatives in the data collection process, thereby ensuring they have a say in how their data will be used, and also providing them with further context regarding its collection. 

It is also essential to implement robust data protection measures and share these safeguards with affected communities. Such measures not only guarantee the safety of the information but also demonstrates a genuine commitment to respecting and valuing their concerns. 

Finally, using disaggregated data responsibly to drive positive change and highlight tangible benefits can reinforce the idea that the data is collected ultimately for the betterment of the community. 

As a public servant, what do I need to be aware of? 

Data disaggregation offers a wealth of opportunities, but it also requires thoughtful consideration. First, detailed data raises privacy concerns, as individuals or groups can be more easily identified. Additionally, excessive data breakdowns can obscure patterns during analysis, offering only a partial view. Highly disaggregated data often offers a static or indirect perspective; without deeper cross-analysis, it becomes difficult to unveil patterns. In other words, maintaining the right granularity ensures data remains informative and actionable. 

When working with data, you must be transparent in how you use it. It is therefore important to: 

  • avoid bias in analysis 
  • ensure that you make fair decisions 
  • collect and store data in line with strict privacy regulations 
  • use data anonymization and encryption tools to protect privacy 

Most importantly, remember that any insights gained from data are only as valuable and trustworthy as the data collection process. 

From complexity to simplicity 

Simply put, disaggregated data reveals more clearly what is going on underneath the surface. For policy making, it can help us address the diverse and unique needs of various communities. It is important to remember that ensuring the careful management of disaggregated data is crucial to maintaining privacy and data security, particularly when dealing with sensitive or personal information. 

Related courses 

Related resources 

Mohamed Loukrati

Mohamed Loukrati

Moh talks about data literacy, AI and emerging technology. | Moh discute de la littératie des données, de l'IA et des technologies émergentes.


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