Scrap the census

I have just received this news release from the Office for National Statistics:

“It’s now just one year to go until the 2011 Census on Sunday 27 March 2011, so the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is ramping up its activities making sure that everyone is aware of the census and what it means for them.

 

For businesses, census data underpins many decisions involving investments of billions of pounds every year…Businesses can, and do, use census data to gain market advantage…’Census data provides the key to tracking socio demographic changes,’ notes Stuart Armon, director of Work Research. ‘For example, mobile phone manufacturers can see that there’s an aging (sic) population who (sic) may require a different functionality from their (sic) handsets.’

 

As well as businesses making informed decisions about their markets and customers, the statistics from the census underpin the allocation of billions of pounds of public money for local services like education, transport and health.”

This raises a number of issues:

1. If the census is for the benefit of business then, perhaps, business should pay for it and organise it.

2. If the census is for the benefit of business then it should not be compulsory. There is no reason why I should fill in a very long form, under pain of imprisonment if I do not answer some of the questions.

3. If government determines how to provide health, education and transport services using the information in a decennial census of doubtful accuracy which is probably 12 years out of date by the time the following one is analysed and published, then it explains an awful lot. The information contained in a price signal is so much more relevant, timely and detailed than a glorified compulsory market research survey.

Anybody up to the challenge of starting a “scrap the census” campaign on Facebook?

According to my calculations, it is more than thirteen months to 27th March 2011, so I don’t know why the ONS says it’s “now just one year to go”. Let’s hope the margin of error in the census numbers themselves is somewhat less than the (roughly) 11 per cent error in this simple calculation!I still enjoy Morgenstern’s report of a study showing that in the 1950 US Census of Population there was a surprising number of widowed 14-year old boys. He makes the point that these and other similar ‘errors’ were easily spotted intuitively, but says: “Had the material dealt with financial data, incomes, production, etc., this would have been far more difficult, if possible at all.”

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