(As the first results of the 2011 UK Census are published Richard Margrave asks whether this will be the last one.)
One bitter cold day in Washington D.C. I found warmth in the U.S. National Archives where as a doctoral student back at the London School of Economics I was given permission to access national census files that were then closed to the public.
My topic was the migration of silk textile workers from England to the rapidly expanding mill city of Paterson New Jersey during the late nineteenth century. As I trawled through the microfilms of the original manuscript returns of the census enumerators I found not only my thousands of Macclesfield-born silk weavers and their families but also had a glimpse of an American society in the throes of immense change with a huge new immigration from the south of Italy and Russia caught in this comprehensive 1900 snapshot of personal, family and household details.
I was reminded of this experience as the 2011 Census first results for England and Wales were published recently. A census that further reveals the data collection problems with that of ten years ago and of other undercounts in public data sets since then. An exercise that already reveals 3.7 million more people in England and Wales than ten years ago, with higher birth rates, increased numbers of migrants, longer age expectancy and over half the population growth concentrated in London, the South East and East of England; and has so much detail yet to be published.
The 2011 Census took place on 27 March 2011. The scale of the exercise was enormous and the information collected extensive. It comprised 14 questions about each household in the UK and 43 questions about each individual, including education, employment, travel to work, health and languages spoken.
So why do we need a census that this time around has cost £480 million?
The information collected is used by central government, local authorities, health authorities, fire and rescue services, charities, businesses and academics to inform the policy process, target more accurately the delivery of services and plan for the future.
The exercise contributes to plans and resource allocation for education, training and the labour force, business development, health and social services, roads and public transport, housing and to studies of family, household, community, migration, land use and environment.
It is a rich source of information for the social sciences and a national archive of who and what we were for future generations.
Although the public are at best agnostic towards the census process it still courts controversy.
It was consistently claimed that more than one million people were missing from the last census count in 2001, with consequent confusion for targeting government spending, especially in areas and populations with the greatest need. The 2011 Census just published shows even that figure was an underestimate with even more, 1.2 million people missing from the count ten years ago.
The question in the current census concerning religion is optional following complaints that people should be required to reveal their faith, with ‘no religion’ now the first tick box choice.
But perhaps most controversial of all is the knowledge that the 2011 Census may be the last of its kind, replaced with negotiated state access to the ever growing mass of personal data held by commercial organisations, or a so-called ‘Tesco count’, in addition to birth records and NHS data.
No one argues against the usefulness of socio-demographic information or that it needs to be collected, analysed and used to support current policy development but the Office for National Statistics (ONS), through its ‘Beyond 2011’ project, has examined the potential of utilising commercial information which could include credit ratings, grocery loyalty schemes, mobile phone and power company customer databases and even National Lottery data.
There is clearly no commercial database that comes close to the comprehensive wealth of information on each individual and household collected by the ten year census.
The argument needs not to be whether we should retain the census but how best we can incorporate into government policy making the wealth of new data from everything from social media sites to marketing databases. As the new Chair of the government’s Data Strategy Board and YouGov CEO Stephan Shakespeare recently repeated in these pages, “Data is the new oil”.
The census needs to return in 2021 but allied with other increasingly complex and far reaching data sets to provide richer and more fast-moving information.
The safeguards must of course be in place – not least the security of personal data – but it is clear that a burgeoning mass of personal information offers new opportunities.
The census though is much more than our shopping habits or our credit rating. By informing our policy makers and enabling social scientists to study our world in greater depth and with more understanding the census counts.
Dr Richard Margrave is CEO, Margrave Communications Limited, London and Academic Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies,Washington, D.C.