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back to article Government defends need for census

The census director at the Office of National Statistics has said that the UK's national census remains incredibly important amid criticism from privacy groups about its effectiveness. Glen Watson said that the survey collects data that will provide "a bedrock of information for the next 10 years". He was responding to …

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MGJ
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really

So NO2ID and Big Brother Watch would like the government to join up all their existing databases rather than have the data fresh for this purpose. Well that's a change to their normal view...

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Unacceptable alternatives

According to the BBC they may abandon the census and rely on information from the Credit Reference Agencies. Of course we are aware of just how accurate and accountable their records are...

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Unhappy

Why not pre-fill data and allow for changes - it's quicker

Since the government knows so much about you they should pre-fill the slots and boxes with the data and then recipients who care to participate can save time by just making changes rather than filling in the whole bloody form.

Using 'Don't understand' as a reply and a feint (light) blue will also make the American census contractors day just a little harder, too.

(Don't complain too much about loss of privacy - the Ontario government even has details of houses on a database!)

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Really?

What about the vast numbers of people who live in rented accommodation. I'd guess that most of these people (myself included) haven't been at the same address for the past ten years, so you'd be pre-populating a whole load of wrong answers and relying on people to spot that and correct them, rather than just go, 'look they've filled it in for me' and send it back.

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RE: Why not pre-fill data and allow for changes - it's quicker

| (Don't complain too much about loss of privacy - the Ontario government even has details of houses on a database!)

This years census will be collecting details of houses as part of it's address register.

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FAIL

AND it's a privacy violation...

you'd be providing the private details of the previous resident to the current resident.

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Random Sampling the way to go.

Did you know that you can get fairly accurate predictions about any given population by looking at a randomly sampled subset of that population? You would imagine the ONS would have that one sorted by now.

Interesting how the ONS guy on Radio4 chose the statistic that the Census costs 95pence per person per year. Which is an odd way of looking at something that's only done once every 10 years.

Seriously, other than a head count to correct any compounding errors, I can't see the use.

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Indeed.

My old advanced statistics tutor would probably love this article. The entire year we were with him was spent learning examples of the sort of maths involved that make 100% sample sizes completely unnecessary. And yes, this included the National Census, an institution that he had no trouble tearing into and making various references to throughout the year.

There's plenty of voluntary sampling methods that will provide you with oodles of market research data (sorry, 'information about the populace') without forcing everyone to provide an ever more detailed analysis of their personal life to the government every 10 years, under penalty of fines and imprisonment. At least, it'll be to the 95th or 99th percentile certain, which is probably just as accurate as the census after you filter out the comedians and refuseniks playing silly buggers with the forms.

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Re-using data already collected

Two comments.

1) Data quality and coverage varies greatly from one database to another. IIRC the DVLA database is notoriously low quality. Merging data won't be easy. Trivial example - I am known by my middle name, so my name appears in a variety of forms in different databases. So how can they be sure that when they merge data they correctly assign my data - and only my data - to me?

Not saying it shouldn't be done, but it's not as easy as it sounds.

2) Data Protection Act says that data can only be used for the purposes for which it was collected. To use other databases for the Census, they would have to obtain the permission of the data subjects. That is, us - all of us, once each for every database which was being used.

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@ Richard Fletcher

"I can't see the use."

Because the ONS (i.e. your Government) loves YOU. And it uses this highly personal data to better serve YOU as its single and only priority.

Honestly!!! Where is the problem? Anyone would think that Govmnt. PLC had a bad rep. with the controlling, handling and security of mass volumes of data - and then with the implementation of it for positive municipal purposes.

Ah...

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Anonymous Coward

Err...

The census data is all anonyomised as soon as possible, the names aren't released for a hundred years afterwards. I'm not aware that census data has ever been leaked in it's non-anonomised form?

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Joke

Well i was a Jedi last time out....

"These are not the answers you are looking for!"

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Anonymous Coward

Never filled in one, never will.

Anonymous post for obvious reasons.

Was tempted by the Religion = Jedi movement last time but ultimately passed.

I'll be "out of the country" again this time - I'm on enough bloody databases as it is!

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Re: Anonymous post for obvious reasons.

No worry, they'll never know - haven't missed my not filing since the 60's. Too busy, this time too.

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It's not about the census, really

It's about the lack of trust that recent governments have worked so hard (and been so successful) at engendering. The reasons for knowing how many people there are is quite reasonable and necessary. But the problems these guys seem to have is that they don't believe that the information won't be abused,

As is usual, the more a government denies something, the more people will think it's true - so the more we're told the information is "safe" the less likely we are to believe it. Since trust is truth multiplied by time (for a simplistic but quantifiable definition) there is no easy way to fix that situation. It would take any government a long period of not lying to it's vict^H^H^H^Hsubjects to regain that trust and there's little indication they are prepared to put in the time, or have the inclination, for that to happen.

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"incredibly important"

This guy needs to get out more.

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Anonymous Coward

Lockheed Martin

I would have complied and filled it in, except that they gave the contract to the world's largest weapons manufacturer. I think there will be quite a few people who get a nasty "yuk" feeling in their stomachs when they discover who they're dealing with, and either ignore it or fabricate their answers.

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Anonymous Coward

as reliable as the condems

Just who provides accurate info on the census?

And just how could anyone ever know otherwise, 'cept for visiting your house?

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RE: Other records and alternatives.

If this really is to help tailor government and business planning to best match the current population then it doesn't matter if it's a little wrong. It makes no odds whether, for example, I lived in a flat around the corner according to the census or I am showing that I owe £30000 on credit card but the guy who really does owe the money has no debt showing -- the stats will still be the same.

If this is about being intrusive and demanding information on individuals to be used for the purposes of tax witch-hunts and the like then they need the data they're asking for.

There is no need for a census because any information the government need on individuals they either have or won't get it from a census.

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Anonymous Coward

France...

In France they have an on the surface very sensible policy that you aren't allowed to ask anyone's ethnic origin, because this could lead to prejudice. That is all well and good, but the problem is that because they aren't allowed to ask anyone's ethnic origin, they don't know if ethnic minorities are being treated equally. This was a fairly major contributing factor to the riots a few years back, lots of ethnic minority young men who lived in inner city areas were (and still are, as far as I know) out of work, with no realistic prospects of getting a job. Noone in power realised this was the case, because the relevant questions weren't being asked.

Now, I'm usually all for NotoID, I paid my tenner against the ID cards scheme, but I think they're not seeing the bigger picture here. The census is anonymised, all names are taken off and aren't released for a hundred years, yes the questions are personal, they have to be, but every effort is taken to make sure that the 'who is who' bit of the data isn't released. The great value that the census has is that it shows in great detail where services are needed and who needs them and it helps prevent situations like they got into in France. I'm all for it.

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Anonymous Coward

re:France

Ah, France... Where they have the freedom to not wear a scarf - oh sorry I mean where they do not have the freedom to wear a scarf.

Ah, France... Where all are friends - as long as you look, dress and speak the proper way.

Ah, France... Where everyone is equal - I mean IS equal, so any inequalities you see are the result of your imperfect understanding of the wonderful French system of equality.

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Population data is very important

I work with population data and for every year between each census I rely on the mid-year estimate produced by the ONS. I don't know how they calculate it but I imagine that each year it becomes a little less accurate as migration and birth rates change, especially at local levels. So after 9 years it won't be as accurate as the first few years after a census is done. So the 2011 census will allow the ONS and people who use this data to get back on target, or at least to verify that estimates used in more recent years was reasonably accurate.

Other data that I and many 1000's of people use are things like average head count per household, average number of children per household, etc. Most consumers of the data couldn't care less about participants names or phone/email info (not that this is even collected or published), it's the statistical value of the yes/no and quantities that allow local and central Government to plan for the future and make decisions about things based on this reality check.

The people who said data can't be used from other existing databases to form a census are correct. The DPA doesn't allow data to be used for other unconsented purposes and the quality of other database and the ability to merge accurately is just too unreliable.

Census data is harmless and ultimately is good for the country. Millions of our ancestors were happy to participate and that has also helped us to keep an accurate picture of our country's past.

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Harmless? Surely you jest?

"Census data is harmless and ultimately is good for the country. Millions of our ancestors were happy to participate and that has also helped us to keep an accurate picture of our country's past."

Well, when it was originally brought in by a conquering monarch who wanted a head count so he knew how much tax to extract, I imagine people didn't have much of a choice.

Now it's evolved far past a head count and into creepy territory, and people still don't have much of a choice.

So while you're right that millions were probably happy to comply, how many weren't and aren't? And how many would just do what the government wants them to do regardless of how silly? See this is the thing about statistical analysis - it helps to know all the variables!

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That's the reasonable part

I don't think anyone objects to *that* part. At least that was the case in the US, even the tin foil types understand the use of a basic headcount, and don't usually have a problem with that (plus it's in the constitution). What people object to are the really detailed biographical questions, especially because there are just so many of them.

Our census made, in my opinion, a good choice to trim it back to the basics. They still ask race, but that's about the only thing that could be really be considered "personal". Other than that it was essentially just "How many people live here and how are they related to you?".

I understand they will use other, presumably voluntary, methods to collect a sampling of the more detailed kind of information.

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Pete 2 - strike out "subjects" as well

In as much as it's relevant anymore we are subjects of the Queen. We are also citizens of the United Kingdom.

We are NOT subjects of the government - said bar stewards works for us, not the other way round.

Regrettably both they and a vast proportion of the population constantly forget that MPs are public *servants* (employees of the state, not rulers of it) - which is why they, whatever party they belong to, keep getting away with so much.

Which, by the way, is also the sole solid argument for maintaining the Monarchy in this country. Prime Minister Anthony Blair did enough damage. Can you imagine what *President* Anthony Blair might have "achieved"?

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Not subjects

Yes, you're right, I was looking for the right word. Subjects was the closest I could get. I realise that it's not correct, but none of the alternatives seemed to work, either. What I wanted was the inverse of "rulers" or governors (see later) and "subject" is listed as a valid antonym.

Governments don't have citizens, countries do, likewise population. Customers implies there's some choice in the relationship. Recipients is too vague. Targets doesn't quite do it either. Underling sounds too personal or small-scale. Some urban slang has the right measure of contempt and disdain - if anatomically incorrect, but let's try to keep some standards, eh? what-ho?

I suppose "electorate" is technically correct, but "serf" better conveys the balance of power. Despite our lords and masters being called "public servants" there is absolutely no doubt in their minds who is in charge - maybe we get "served" the same way that lunch does.

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Black Helicopters

Patriot Act ?

You know - the one Obama hasn't repealed yet.

In my view, the elephant in the room is the fact that a US company is doing the processing. A US company that would be *legally obliged* to hand over the data to Uncle Sam, if they asked - and not tell anyone, either.

Only one poster here (so far) has mentioned the LM involvement, and connected it to some spurious moral reason to oppose the census.

The real reason people should avoid the census is because the data could, and probably will, end up in the hands of the CIA et al. Add that to the UK->US extradition treaty, and anyone who dabbles in online gambling, or anything else the US dislikes could become fair game.

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so thats what it's for...

'The collection of such information in England and Wales allows local councils, central government and businesses to plan services that families and communities need.'

and then 5 years down the road the tories get in and then cut the services all to hell.

ergo the census is vital, if we want to quantify just how badly we are all getting fucked over by 'the man'

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Heh.

"Noone in power realised this was the case, because the relevant questions weren't being asked."

Rethink this: because everyone knew there was racial discrimination but liked to be able to say that it was exaggerated, the statistics were never gathered to avoid embarassment.

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Re: France

It's a government database, containing vast amounts of personal information, accessible to an army of bureaucrats.

Overwhelming evidence over the last 10 years thus shows that unanonymised data is likely to be:

a) abused by those in power;

b) misused by pandering to corporations (the official Census site even trumpets this as a benefit); and

c) left unencrypted on a laptop on a train bound for or leaving Waterloo. Or Vauxhall if the laptop belongs to an MI5/MI6 spook.

But this database is different. We can trust them. Honestly. It won't happen this time.

Go ahead, trust them.

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Anonymous Coward

But...

The census people are not your usual Government wonks, their only job is to make sure that the data are secure and they've done a pretty good job so far.

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re good job so far

Is that why it's now being outsourced to Lockheed Martin?

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An important genealogical and historical tool.

You won't protect the environment or cut down on the waste you produce, you won't drive less and you won't stop flying. Just for once, stop being so selfish and make an effort to do something for future generations. It won't kill you.

Whilst I appreciate that there are serious issues with the government knowing everything about you (because you are right, they cannot be trusted), the value of the census goes way beyond contemporary issues. So in this instance, the privacy folk might like to make an exception, take their tin foil hats off and do the right thing, urging everyone to fill it out accurately.

The one change they could make is to hive it off from the government and set it up as an independent not-for-profit, public service agency.

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Indeed

I wonder just how many of of the census opponents flocked to the 1901 (and now the 1911) census site to trace their ancestors.

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@Tron

"You won't protect the environment or cut down on the waste you produce, you won't drive less and you won't stop flying ... [but] the value of the census goes way beyond contemporary issues." Sorry, Tron, but you are conflating totally different issues here. You clearly seem to think that the flying/driving/recycling thing is important, and I can only assume that is because you think that by doing these things less we will be helping future generations (which I will accept on the face of it). However, surely, these things are generally regarded as relevant to the health and well-being of these future generations, whereas providing census information so that there can be the equivalent of "Who Do You Think You Are" on the media machines is ... well, frivolous, at best.*

*However, I do regard genealogy as a waste of time generally, so my opinion is coloured by that. I don't care what my ancestors did, and I really couldn't care less if any putative future generations of Potsherds can't find anything about me!

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Once every ten years

A lot of people can come and go in 10 years, both in terms of births and deaths, or simply moving house, or even moving country.

I can't see how this infrequent information is particularly useful for planning things likes schools, or care for the elderly. So presumably the authorities already use other sources of information to plan ahead (if not they ought to).

It seems to make sense to go the whole hog and collate this information more frequently from other sources. Forget once every ten years, they could do it in real time. Get some open source hackers to do it for free, obviously.

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lol cyber think :D

how long exactly do you think it takes to go from saying, "we are going to need a school" to said school being opened?

hospitals?

power stations??

waste disposal sites???

theres a bit more to it that banging some code together and bunging it up on an app store somewheres.

ten year old data IS real time when it comes to infrastructure projects!

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Depends where you live

In some areas of the country things move more quickly than that. I live in a rapidly expanding new town where the rate of growth seems to depend to a large extent on how quickly the developers want to build houses, depending in turn on the housing market.

Most of the rapid expansion in population is from people moving in. The mix of people depends on the local economy - will there be more local jobs, or will it become ever more of a dormitory own. Will the next generation of kids be able to afford houses here?

10 year old census information ins't much help here. Ten years before our local schools were built, this entire district (thousands of houses) was fields, with developers still deciding when and what they were going to do with it.

I was, of course, being facetious about how easy it might be to scrape all this information from other sources (most of them are not publicly available anyway). But a ten year time frame is too long.

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thousands of houses...

but how many lesure centres? municipal dumps? power stations? hospitals? bus stations? rail stations (lol)

houses is easy! any fule can give a councilor a bung and barratbuild a few thousand hutches

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FAIL

It almost like the UK goverments *dont want* a census ...

1991 - census is boycotted, as people suspect (rightly IME) that data gathered will be used to catch poll tax evaders. HMG admit significant possibilities of errors as result

2001 - census is boycotted because of new intrusive questions on religious views. HMG admit significant possibilities of errors as result

2011 - census is subject of calls for boycott for even more intrusive questions, plus the involvement of a non-UK weapons manufacturer, with no motivation to keep the data secure. I can see the headlines now: "HMG admit significant possibilities of errors as result"

what was wrong with name, rank, and serial number ?

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You do know...

...that LM and Fujitsu/Seimens were involved in 2001 as well? They provided the system and equipment, respectively. The system was one that the government basically bought from LM after it proved successful in the US.

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Big Brother

Non-Compliance Detection

Anyone have any information about how our Glorious Leaders will detect and procecute non-compliance?

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Tried and tested technology

They will send out "non-census detector vans" which come with big ariels which can totally detect the census status of any members of the household and are in no way just long painted bits of wood

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Anonymous Coward

Non-compliance

If you look on the census jobs website

https://censusjobs.co.uk/fe/tpl_census01.asp?newms=info1

you'll see they are busy recruiting people to go around and collect forms and interview those who choose not to reply.

My Dad did a lot of family history and found out loads about our family via census data (1901 and earlier). It is a good snapshot of what's going on and will be used to change policy. The least we can do is make sure it's accurate for future generations and policy makers.

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Anonymous Coward

One way

People like me contacting them and telling them they can shove it up their collective arse. Using their real name.

In '01 I filled out the reasonable stuff and left the newer, highly intrusive stuff blank.

If Lockheed Martin are involved this time, I'll be writing to No. 10 and telling Cameron to fuck off on the arse he road in on (Brown). It always gives me a good feeling to think of vast no.s doing same - but I'll also be happy enough to be in the minority (having long, long ago reconciled myself to being there).

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Black Helicopters

In two minds

I am in two minds. I like the idea of the census as a tool for historical information. Sometimes it is nice to see that there were people living at your house a hundred years ago. My house is Victorian. Imagine that in 100 years, there will be people researching the history of a house, or family history. They would love to see the census information to see who lived in the house.

The problem is that the government cannot be trusted with information. Now I hear that the information will be compiled by Lockheed Martin. Why?????

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Again with the trivial argument!

Filling in a form because it might provide spurious entertainment for someone in the future is not a good argument!

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Teacups

In a previous job I had a significant amount of contact with the ONS, both as a user of census data and working on committees with ONS staff and they were SO paranoid about data security and leakage. Not just physical and procedural security but using differencing methods on different geographies to deduce data for small numbers of people.

The staff in the ONS are a pretty damn bright bunch and don't just live in an ivory tower, I for one am perfectly happy to fill in my census form and I trust the ONS to process it responsibly.

Anyway if there's no census data what will all the family tree researches use in 100 years time?

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I'm actually for the Census.

The only reason i'm for the census is to shut up those stupid Daily Mail readers who actually believe less than 1% of people are gay and argue for our rights to be taken away.

Of course since they're Daily Mail readers they won't understand most of the questions anyway...

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@Tigra 07

You might like to look into some history on that one.

http://www.overtherainbowshop.com/symbols.htm

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