#mycensus: not just a survey but critical data gathered by all the people for the people

Last night was an important night for the Australian Government.  It was Census night, which has occurred every five years (since 1961) on a mid-week winter’s night in August when it’s thought that there was little else happening in the lives of Australians. Census night has been a tradition in Australia for over 100 years when the first Australian Census was completed back in 1911. Ever since, at each and every Census we gain more insight into the extraordinary composition of the people that live in this amazing country.

Most likely you have done your part and tried diligently to fill out your Census form. Who would have thought it would have brought the nation together in such a way.

But just maybe you haven’t completed your form, either online or on paper. You might have just forgotten; after all the Olympics are on. Maybe you followed the controversy around adding your name to the Census form and had concerns about privacy. These privacy concerns are of course real for many people and the press fulfilled its democratic function of highlighting the issue and urging government to act responsibly and in the best interests of the Australian people.

That the collection of names surfaced as a topic of concern is somewhat surprising as names were collected and immediately anonymised in previous Censuses. Perhaps it is because of the digital focus of this year’s Census. But the only real change is that the anonymised list of names is now kept for four years rather than being destroyed after 18 months. As it took the ABS more than 18 months to analyse all aspects of the last Census this extension ensures we, the Australian people, get the most bang out of our Census buck. Previous Censuses have been conducted in an orderly manner and over the last five years data encryption has further improved. The country’s Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim said yesterday his office had worked closely with the ABS and was confident it had put in place the “highest standard of security possible” to protect the sensitive data.

As a demographer, my focus is squarely on the significant benefits the Census provides to Australia.

I work with Census data every day with government clients asking for advice on how to best distribute limited funding to the places that need it most across the community. While a myriad of data sources and consultations flow into this discussion, there is no more granular and detailed and ongoing source than the Census.

In Australia, planners and data analysts count themselves lucky. The US, for example, runs a significantly less detailed Census (10 questions) every 10 years while other countries only rely on surveys. And just in case you are wondering about the difference between a census and a survey, a census has to include everyone in a given area whereas a survey is only a (hopefully) representative group.

While cancelling the Census might be cheaper in the short run, this for example would weaken the extremely detailed (and rather excellent) population projections produced by the Australian states and territories. It is these population projections on which business and governments in Australia rely when deciding about new infrastructure projects, allocation of funds, store locations, education facilities health services and a myriad of other decisions.

To have such resources distributed as fairly and as democratically as possible it is important that all people are represented accurately in the Census dataset. If you haven’t filled in a Census form you are not going to be considered in future decision making.

I for one want to be included in such decisions – even if it is just as a single line of data,

If you haven’t filled out your Census form (and I have to admit if was frustrating for many) there is still time to do so online. Handing in your Census before the mid-September deadline not only spares you a fine but more importantly, makes sure that you are not being overlooked when politicians and business leaders shape the future of Australia.

Simon is an avid data mapper. He tweets @simongerman600


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