UK census 2011 – the last?
In Britain, Francis Maude has described the 2011 census as “wasteful”. He is the Cabinet minister in charge of it. For the future he is examining using databases from credit check agencies, Royal Mail and councils instead of a census. Save our census, says Jack Miles – but offers an alternative to its present form.
“Invasive”. “Intrusive”. “Unsuitable”. Those are some of the words members of the current government have used to describe the forthcoming 2011 census. Francis Maude declared that 2011 may be the last time the census is carried out – and he is the man charged with carrying it out. He believes that the cost of it – estimated at £482 million – is unjustified. But he has also attacked it as inaccurate and slow – “out of date almost before it has been done”. For the future, “there are, I believe, ways of doing this which will provide better, quicker information, more frequently and cheaper”, he has said. Last time around, in 2001, nearly 400 000 people filled in the box for “religious affiliation” with the word “Jedi”. About 1.5 million households failed to fill in their forms at all. To them, and even to the more normal respondent who is not a fan of Star Wars, the end of the census would be relatively meaningless. However, to the householder whose day job is quantitative researcher, or market researcher, or statistician (and who doubtless fills in his or her form properly) – or indeed to anyone who uses demographic data – the end of the census could be seen as a monumental event. Perhaps it is up to us to save it. I can already hear non-researchers (and a few Cabinet Office ministers) asking “why?” and “how?” Let us start with the why. ly speaking, progressed somewhat since its inception in 1801. It has advanced from headcounts to postal questionnaires. Nevertheless, it is possible to argue that we are still applying 20th- or even 19th-century methods to a 21st-century problem. The internet has made barely a dent on census techniques. The questionnaires are still printed on paper, delivered by post, filled in by hand, and returned again by post. And there are some 23 million of those questionnaires, since that is the number of UK households. Other industries have been moving as fast and as far as they can to shift as much of their workload as possible to the internet – especially the parts that use paperwork (in huge quantities), and staff, and cost money. Given the furore about its cost, surely it is now time to consider using the modern, cost-efficient data collection abilities of the internet, thus spawning Census 2.0. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) tells us that 70% of UK households now have access to the internet. This means that potentially 70% of households can be reached at a vastly reduced cost. This huge saving comes from cutting the expense of producing the paper questionnaires, delivering the document to every household then back to the census office, and entering the paper-based data into computers. There is a reduced spend in all of these labour- and timeconsuming processes. Why not use the internet instead? Critics will argue that online data collection will not capture the information of the entire population. This is certainly true; but even if the missing 30% of the population had to be chased in the traditional manner, collecting fullpopulation census data would still be far more cost-efficient. If 70% of households provided their details online, only 7 million postal (or
When any statistician or researcher receives a demand for a sample to be representative of demographic proportions, where does he or she go? Most immediately view the data of the last census to find out the demographic proportions required to meet the sampling criteria. Further, census data provides an instant and accessible overview of the UK population at the click of a few buttons, giving demographic and economic insights along the way, something few researchers would want to sacrifice.
The saviour – Census 2.0?
As researchers, we should obviously want to preserve the life of the census. Which makes it only fair that we should suggest ways of making this possible. The modern census has, methodological-
A census enumerator taking details from a gypsy family for the Dutch census of 1925
perhaps telephone?) questionnaires would have to be administered instead of 23 million. In addition to being cost-efficient, it is worth noting that internet data collection is timeefficient as well. It currently takes about a year to publish census data. Francis Maude’s criticism that it is out of date before it is has been done is fundamentally true. But the internet would dramatically speed this process up. Online methods can instantly capture data without having to go through a drawn-out data entry process. Rather than regretting the loss of a universal census, researchers might find themselves welcoming the arrival of an up-to-date one. The second key criticism of the current census is that the information it collates has limited longevity. Here again the ONS could learn from the experience of others. In the world of market research, using online communities has recently experienced an upsurge in popularity. Having
collected data for the entire population, would it not be possible to create online communities for all the UK counties or regions? Many millions of Facebook users update their pages daily. Surely it would be possible to create a census community whose members were willing to update their census page annually, or biannually, or even every month or so? This would, in theory, provide far more up-to-date information on the population, albeit based on a sample. Again one can argue it would be more beneficial to have up-to-date information based on a sample than to have outdated information derived from the entire population. And to draw valid information from samples when the whole population is not available is far from impossible. Indeed, isn’t that what statisticians do? Collecting data more frequently would add to an already stretched census budget. However, the use of the internet in creating Census 2.0
would make it far more cost-efficient than the current census; the funds saved on data collection could be used for more frequent updating. It would almost certainly save money overall. Embracing online data collection and elements of web-based research techniques within the census could eradicate the two current major criticisms that are made of it – cost and the longevity of the data set collected. It would make the publication of the information collected a speedier process. The real challenge will lie in convincing critics of the census and online research that this is a worthwhile step to take. We need the census. Let us show how it can continue – because we do not need it fossilised.
Jack Miles is a quantitative researcher at Northstar Research Partners UK (www.northstarmarketresearch.co.uk)
US census: unsustainable?
The United States is a year ahead of Britain and Canada in its ten-year census cycle. Robert Groves, head of the US Census Bureau, described the 2010 census at the RSS annual conference. Julian Champkin caught up with him.