Have your say on the future of the UK Census | DMA

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Have your say on the future of the UK Census

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has proposed two money-saving options to replace the 10-year, paper-based UK Census: moving it online or using existing government data and compulsory annual surveys. The proposals appear in the Beyond 2011 ONS consultation, which closes on 13 December 2013.

Option 1: Online Census (Once a decade, like that conducted in 2011, but primarily online)
Method: Data outputs every 10 years on a wide range of topics, similar to those in the 2011 Census. Information would be produced for a range of geographic areas, from large regions down to very small areas and for small population groups.
Do any countries conduct an online Census? Yes, several other countries currently do so. For example, the 2011 Canadian census was conducted primarily online and 54% of households responded online, with an overall response rate of 98%.
Would this work in the UK? The risks of moving to a primarily online approach in 2021 would be manageable but would require paper-based surveys to plug the gaps.

Option 2: Government data & annual surveys (Using existing government data and compulsory annual surveys)
Method: Statistics would be collected every year on key aspects of the population and housing. But, the most detailed statistics for small geographic areas (Output Areas) that the census has provided in the past would not be available.
Do any countries use this approach to collect Census data? Scandinavian countries, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Israel and Germany have moved to systems based largely on administrative data.
Would this work in the UK: It’s worth noting that these countries have well-established population registers, and all residents are legally required to keep their information up to date. This is not the case in the UK, so the available information is less accurate, and not consistent between sources.

Pros & cons
Both approaches would provide statistics about the size of the population, nationally and for local authorities. Beyond that, however, there are some significant differences – within which both approaches would have different advantages and disadvantages. These are documented at length in the ONS consultation document, but some of the key points are:

An online census once a decade
This would be most like the traditional Census approach. It utilises new technology to collect data from the whole population at a lower cost than a paper-based approach, allowing quicker turnaround of statistics than has happened with the 2011 Census. It will provide users, once-per-decade, with similar types of statistics to the 2011 Census, at similar geographic levels.

A census using government (administrative) data and surveys
This is a considerable departure from the traditional census approach. It utilises the wealth of government administrative data, combined with compulsory annual surveys, to create key statistics on population and housing at high geographic levels (National, Regional, Local Authority Districts) on an annual basis.

After the data collection exercise has been running for a few years, then coarser statistics than are currently being produced from the 2011 Census would also be produced using three or five years' worth of combined input data. Results would be published for geographic areas that are, on average, over five times larger than the Output Areas for which a large number of Census statistics are published today.

What are the risks?

  • Option 1 carries considerably less risk than Option 2, but only produces statistics based on one time-point per decade
  • Option 2 is likely to be a cheaper option than Option 1, but carries far more risk, especially in terms of creating results around the time that results from a traditional 2021 Census would be expected
  • Option 2 provides an opportunity to provide more timely estimates, especially for the latter years of the decade between each traditional Census
  • Option 2 will never provide local area statistics down to the detailed level of Output Area, enjoyed by users of current Census data and which is vital to many public and private sector businesses

It is also worth noting that new legislation would be required for approaches using administrative data and surveys, to give access to the required data and to make surveys compulsory. While citizens have become familiar with the census process and most regard it as “ingrained” in our society and a legitimate reason for disclosing personal details, an alternative method may generate adverse public perception as part of the push for new legislation.

What are the implications for the marketing community?
Moving to a census method using administrative data and surveys would have significant implications for the future availability of data for small areas, and thus for established geodemographics and geo-marketing.

The approach could enable the increasingly rapid change in society to be measured more frequently than our current system. However, it could never provide as much detail about the population and housing as the Census has provided in the past. While it may be possible to extract the required statistics from administrative sources and larger sample surveys – with the advantage of more regular updates – making a full assessment of those requirements at small area level is a key element of what is required.

What the marketing community is doing
A number of discussion groups and working parties have already been set up within the marketing community to flesh out the implications of this for our industry and our clients. Early discussions within this marketing community seem generally to support the online census option. However, there is also a view that we must give the alternative a chance and deepen our thinking on the implications of this as a marketing community.

If we were to lose the depth and breadth of the 10-year Census it wouldn’t be the end of the world for marketers. We are seeing a dramatic increase in the volume and variety of data available on population groups and societal change. It is undeniable that there are lots of new data sources around today such as social, mobile, open data driven by client first-party data and more freely accessible government sources that could all help to build a picture of the UK population – and at the very least could help us to monitor change on a more regular basis than we are able to at the moment.

For example, Experian collects data from a very wide variety of sources and is increasingly working with first-party data to develop dynamic views of populations and their behaviour which are already being combined into products and services.

Indeed, the huge amounts of data generated by the loyalty schemes of a select group of retailers would provide opportunities to develop a view of the population from these kinds of sources. But, this doesn’t help the rest of the business community who currently use census-derived information about the location and nature of the population in their decisioning and targeting strategies. The danger is that what should be a publicly accessible portrait of the national population becomes locked in the hands of the 'data rich' (or at least those with deep pockets!).

Business use of census data
The clients of several marketing information service providers use UK census data, as well as value-added products such as Experian’s Mosaic (that uses UK census data among other inputs), as fuel for a wide range of business decisions. Good examples of the types of business decision that census data and census-based products relate to are retail planning decisions. These cover issues such as store forecasting, marketing planning, ranging, identifying new markets, supporting or defending retail developments and understanding workforce locations. In addition, Census data can play a role in audience targeting – both offline and online through traditional local area leaflet distribution or as an input into the “context” of a group of individuals for driving location-based digital advertising targeting.

Robust, consistent & granular data matters
For marketing services businesses like Experian who use census data as an input across a range of segmentation and geographic data products and services, it is more important for the level of geographic granularity to be maintained, especially for the key population counts, than for the frequency of output to be increased to. I’d encourage anyone who has an interest in small area census data to make their views know.

A call to action: make your views known
It is perhaps ironic that this discussion is taking place so soon after what is considered one of the best censuses in modern history, in 2011. Even before its completion, Government Ministers had requested a less costly statistical system, without a Census. The UK Statistics Authority has asked the ONS to advise on cost-effective options and this is one of the drivers behind the consultation.

The ONS is keen to hear all views on the options – and so we encourage you to get involved, whatever your perspective. The ONS is also seeking case studies of key uses of small area statistics and this should provide marketers with an opportunity to underline the value of commercial applications and the economic consequences of particular census-derived data not being available in the future. You have until 13 December 2013 to have your say in the consultation. The findings will be published and presented to Government in 2014.

Paul Cresswell, Vice-President, Experian Marketing Services Group

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