Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Yeah, The Census Again: U.K. Edition

Two articles about the U.K.'s possibly dropping its own census and replacing it with a regular scour through of the nation's post-office address lists, credit-card-checking registries, and so on. The Time Magazine Piece is more skeptical:

...the U.K. doesn't need "an unsatisfactory stitched-together patchwork of information," says David Coleman, professor of demographics at Oxford University, calling Maude's proposed method a "ludicrous fudge." Glen O'Hara, a historian at Oxford Brookes University, agrees: "These sources are not likely to be any substitute. They are mostly characterized by a near comical set of gaps, omissions, conflicts of interest and data-protection issues."

It also suggests that the decision has not been finalized: issues could well prove a sticking point. The U.K.'s center-right government might be reluctant to throw its support behind the Beyond 2011 project, especially as one of the first acts of the new coalition was to scrap the previous Labour government's ID-card scheme. The plan, reviled because of data-protection and personal-freedom concerns, was linked to an incomplete population database known as the National Identity Register — itself now scrapped, having hardly been used. A reliable register of addresses — costing $15 million — has been put together for the 2011 census. But licensing and data-sharing restrictions block the register from further use.

The Economist article is far more gung-ho, but suggests that a new people counting regime in the U.K. would still involve "periodic polling of a sample of the population". The article doesn't clarify, but I betcha this polling would be to gather more detailed, long-form-like information to supplement the bare-bones stuff in the other databases.

And, being The Economist, its a good read.


Shiner said...

A couple thoughts:

Gathering information the way they do it in the Scandinavian way would be great... if the info is available. I'd also wonder how the relatively homogenous populations of Sweden and Denmark impact this. That's not even touching on the massive differences in the actual size of the populations. I bet looking through this mish-mash of municipal/provincial records in a country of 5,000,000 is a bit less time consuming than doing it with a population of 30,000,000 spread out across 10,000,000 km2.

Second point is that this has nothing to do with the criticism being directed at our current census. From a privacy standpoint, what's worse? Having the government send you a form and ask you the questions, or having public servants rummaging through your bank accounts, birth and marriage certificates, property filings, etc.

Paul S said...

If the government already has the information available then it is not necessary to threaten citizens with imprisonment for not providing information the government already has.

Maybe The Economist is correct that government computer databases already possess almost all the necessary information.

tono-bungay said...

The fundamental changes being considered for the England & Wales census would make it closer to the current Canadian census. Right now everyone gets the long form every 10 years. They want to make it more accurate by making it more often (perhaps every 5 years like us) and not sending the long form to everyone, and using techniques like Canada's to follow up with non-respondents

They started on the "Beyond 2011" project and one of the options was a national identity card, mandatory address tracking, and forcing various private and public services to hand over personal info on clients.

Jennifer Smith said...

The countries mentioned in the Economist article all have a centralized personal ID system, which we do not. We could jury-rig one using, say, our SIN numbers, which we would then have to use for every transaction we might have with any level of government. Information from that transaction would then be recorded and pooled.

That would mean that every government agency - including Revenue Canada - would have access to your health records, vehicle registration, property records, bank records, on and on.

I wouldn't personally object to such a system, but I'm pretty sure that's not what the libertarians have in mind.