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Society, Politics & Law

Dawn of the digital census

Updated Thursday, 3rd March 2011

With online returns for the UK's 2011 census opening tomorrow, Dr Ruppert, research fellow with the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-cultural Change (CRESC), explores the impact of the web on the census

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Digital life is pervasive: we can now socialise, communicate, read, play, learn, and work through digital technologies. As we increasingly live digital lives we also leave traces of our interactions with not only friends and families but also with governments and corporations. From online surveys and government consultations to purchasing and public service access, many people interact regularly with technologies that are also used to compile and track their activities.

To this growing list we can now add the census. Beginning on 4th March, people in the UK will for the first time be able to complete their returns online. But 2011 may also be the last time people will be asked to do so because UK census authorities are considering alternatives that may make this the final census.

That is because digital technologies have not only made online returns possible but also alternative ways of compiling data about people. One thing they enable is the joining up of data from different government databases — such as national insurance, driver licensing, work and pensions — and the creation of a central database of basic personal information. From data about life events (births, deaths, marriages) to income earned and taxes paid, licenses obtained, borders crossed, information about populations can be created that is much more detailed and up-to-date than any census.

Population registers

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Minister responsible for the census, says this kind of method is a better way of gathering population information because it is quicker, can be done more frequently and a lot cheaper.  Censuses cost a lot – this time about £480 million – and they are slow to deliver results. They are only taken every ten years and the estimates need to be regularly adjusted based on birth and death registrations and migration surveys.

Many other governments are also moving in this direction. Some are implementing population registers. Rather than taking a census every ten years, they use data drawn from a number of government databases to provide continuous and up-to-date population data. This year, Germany is doing a complete register-based census of over 82 million people; India is implementing a register alongside its census of over 1.2 billion people; and the Nordic countries started adopting registers beginning in the 1970s.

Some people including privacy campaigners agree with these alternatives because they don’t like the census in the first place. That’s because they think it is intrusive and contributes to the so-called database state. They argue that all of the required information is already stored in government databases so why not collate this data?


However, while people may think that the census is intrusive, the prospect of the government joining up bits of information about us from the cradle to grave and chasing up the traces we leave behind as we go about our everyday lives is pretty daunting. Francis Maude has also suggested that existing private databases could be considered as a source of population data such as those compiled by credit reference agencies. What if the government begins making a case for also using our digital traces from Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon?

In other words, the potential consequences of the digital world for how we know people and populations are much bigger than the first online census.

The 2011 Census website

Study at the OU





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