Man walks into a column, no.11: Census

A quick scan of the #census twittering made me feel quite positive about humankind: a nice mix of jokes (often at the expense of mystery ‘intentionally left blank’ Q.17 or, more frequently, about Jedis), pleas for help and clarification, low-level whinging (does it really need to be this long?) and declarations of pride in completion including in one case a man who was pleased to have eased the server load. On the downside I realised I am not as cool as @MissCCasey who was ‘gonna tweet on the #census but its too boring’: I’ve not only tweeted about it, I’m blogging! What a saddo.

There was also, as one would expect, a vein of opposition, for example reactions to the suspicion that Lockheed Martin (which is processing the data) could, as a US company, be required under the Patriot Act to hand over details about you and me to spooks – you can read Computer Weekly’s coverage of the issues here, and one twitterer’s sceptical reaction to the refutation of the claims from the census director here.

And then there’s the more generalised opposition to the census, which was covered extensively by Jon Henley in Thursday’s Guardian. The NO2ID lot say this is ‘information the government does not need, cannot protect and should not collect’, and Big Brother Watch point out that ‘No other free country requires this degree of detail’. In defence, a University of Manchester professor points out that credit card companies hold far more detailed information and few people complain about that.

I’m naturally disposed to like the census: I’m a researcher by trade and a historian by inclination. However I’m not sure that’s a very good counter argument. I think the key issue here is that whereas no-one forces us to have a credit card, we are compelled to complete the census. We are a society with a fierce libertarian streak, and being forced to do anything makes us feel bloody-minded. We don’t mind freely giving up an element of that liberty but only if we are convinced that we are getting some kind of proportionate benefit in return. And that’s the problem with the census: the benefits are abstract and far removed from our everyday lives. Governments have not succeeded in making a sufficiently strong case for taking our data every ten years.

Much stronger is this argument from the Manchester academic: he says that the Coalition’s plans to replace the census with a process of pulling equivalent data together from different sources are bonkers because…

If you try to pull that same information from all the other data sets out there – GPs, NI, credit card records, commercial databases, local authorities – there’s going to be an awful lot of duplication, an awful lot of incompleteness. How do you marry these data sets? How can you be sure different records refer to the same people?

But this assumes that a national process of counting people is needed, and the rationale for that is mainly, as far as I can see, the need to be able to allocate funding correctly between different local areas. Problem with that is it feels very anti-localist, doesn’t it? Being optimistic for a moment, perhaps the future might see much more money being devolved to local areas to decide how to spend. Facilitating an old-fashioned status quo feels like a weak argument for maintaining something that costs £482m.

As for local public agencies themselves using census data, I’m a strong believer in local politicians having a dialogue with local people to strike a deal that works for them about what data services need to operate properly, and residents are willing to give up. Health services need specific data about people’s health, transport services about people’s comings and goings and so on and so forth: far more detailed stuff than the census can or will ever include.

I wouldn’t deny the census has some value to the research community, but would need persuading that this wasn’t outweighed by the cost of the exercise, the speed with which the data becomes out-of-date, and the census’s comparatively narrow range. When you think about it, more surprising than the opposition voiced in the blogosphere is the relatively high level of positivity about the census. I guess it’s because it feels fundamentally edifying to take part in a truly national event, one in which every single other person is also (supposed to be) participating.

Anyway, forget Jedis: I’m with the man who wants Dudesim included.

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