Census sits awkwardly in the digital age

Proposals to shake up the UK census is proving to be a catch-22, caught between cutting costs and retrieving timely data as well as maintaining the depth of information provided by the 200-year-old survey. 

Mindi Chahal

An online survey could replace the study or information could be collected using data that the Government already holds, according to the proposals from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). 

Going online would be a good step and could cut the costs of mailing out the forms and the administration that involves.

Also, while it might ring true that collecting data from Government sources, including records held by the Post Office, local government and credit checking agencies, might seem more timely than waiting for data from a survey conducted every 10 years, the depth and the issues raised from the census as it is still makes the study valuable in providing snapshot of life in the UK. 

The census is widely used by researchers and businesses as a tool to help understand the UK. Jane Frost, CEO of the Market Research Society, believes that “without the census, we would create the conditions for an unknown ‘hidden’ class to develop in the UK, causing the emergence of a society that is inadequately informed about excluded and isolated groups – people without bank accounts, who work cash-in-hand jobs and who don’t show up on the usual radar. 

“The census must be seen as an investment – without the detailed knowledge and insight it provides, the public and private sectors could waste millions on misdirected facilities or services.”  

But Frost also admits it’s a challenge that the current 10-year cycle between each census “sits awkwardly in the digital age, particularly when the country and its demographic makeup is changing so rapidly”. 

I agree, but the ONS, who say the study has become expensive and difficult to conduct, should be careful about what other sources it uses to compile a replacement for the census, as this may have negative repercussions on public perception of taking part in the study all together. 

Allowing people to provide data, rather than the proposals of using existing data, gives people the power over their details. 

The proposals aren’t set in stone and MPs will consult on the issue this month and make a decision in 2014, but the levels of insight the census currently provides shouldn’t be overlooked.  

The Data Strategy Awards are now open for you to enter and prove how you created brilliant campaigns using research, with categories including audience segmentation and loyalty and relationship marketing. The entry deadline for the Awards is Tuesday 15th October 2013. 


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