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UNECE countries prepare for a paradigm shift in how censuses measure population and housing

Countries across the UNECE region, and all over the world, will soon conduct censuses of all the people and homes within their borders – an exercise that most countries undertake once every ten years, the next ones being in or near to 2020. These censuses are vital for informing all kinds of decisions. Census data are used to formulate and monitor policies and plans for economic development, healthcare, education, transport infrastructure, housing and a wide range of other areas. But censuses can be the most complex, expensive and time-consuming exercises undertaken by statistical offices.

With this in mind, UNECE brings together leading census experts every year to share new research and discuss emerging challenges, helping countries to adopt new technologies, draw on new data sources, and make their processes more efficient.

Last week the Conference of European Statisticians (CES) Group of Experts on Population and Housing Censuses met in Geneva for an event that, for some, was the last international gathering before they go into the field to start counting.

Among topics under discussion was a think piece under preparation by the CES Steering Group on Censuses, a group of 21 experts from around the region who have canvassed views among all member countries about how censuses will look in the future, after the ones currently underway or in the late planning stages have been completed (those known as the ‘2020 round’). The paper, to be published next year, suggests that censuses of the future will need to be more frequent, results will be published more rapidly, and data will increasingly be gathered from existing sources rather than directly asking people to answer census questions.

The very concept of ‘population’, they propose, will be called into question as decision-makers in our mobile world demand information not only about where people live most of the time (the international standard currently recommended by the United Nations, known as ‘usual residence’), but where they work, where they travel, and how much of their time they spend in various different places.  This is not just a technical detail but potentially entails a fundamental shift in what gets counted where by a census, with implications for the distribution of public services, resources and investments.

A crucial requirement for censuses beyond 2020, the group argues, will be for census data to be geocoded. This topic was high on the agenda of last week’s meeting.  Geospatial information can add value to censuses, making them easier to conduct, helping to plug data gaps, and—most essentially for countries of the UNECE region—presenting an incredible range of possibilities for disseminating census data with a geographic dimension, helping to shine light on patterns that previously remained unnoticed. 

The keynote speaker, Professor Andy Tatem of the University of Southampton and WorldPop, prompted awe and debate in equal measure when he showed how mobile phone location data can complement census data to provide information on daily, weekly and seasonal migration patterns, for example. Geocoding all the data collected in a census can also, he explained, enable analysts to group the data in any way they like, rather than being constrained by existing geographic units such as administrative boundaries. This can reveal trends that are masked when data are aggregated by towns, villages or electoral districts.

Marc Hamel, Chair of the CES Steering Group and director of the census programme at Statistics Canada, remarked that “National Statistical Offices are no longer the only players in the production of ‘census-type’ outputs”. The future of censuses beyond 2020 will therefore depend on census-takers recognizing this and striving to provide data that meet the changing demands of users, while maintaining the core features that make census data so different from other sources: universal coverage of every person and home along with the certified high quality assured by their status as official statistics.

Value and impact of UNECE’s work on censuses

  • Our Regional Recommendations for conducting censuses have been the main reference for UNECE countries since the 1950s.
  • Prepared in close cooperation with Eurostat, the CES Recommendations form the framework for census operations and data requirements of European Union countries.
  • For the 2020 round, two-thirds of UNECE countries will use innovative methods and/or administrative data sources for their census, guided by the CES Recommendations.
  • Responding to the recommendations of the 2018 UNECE-Eurostat-EFTA joint overview of the statistical system, Uzbekistan will conduct a census in 2022; its first since 1989.
  • Investing in censuses pays off:

    • The UK’s Office for National Statistics estimated the 2011 census of England and Wales to bring benefits to society worth £490 million annually, covering the cost of undertaking the census in just over one year.
    • Calculations found that the 2013 Census in New Zealand cost 198 million New Zealand dollars, but crucially, every dollar invested led to a return of about 5 dollars for the country and its economy.

UNECE guidance helps countries both to reduce the costs of conducting a census and to increase the value of census data by ensuring they are accurate, relevant and produced rapidly.

Learn more about UNECE’s work on population and housing censuses: https://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/stats/documents/census/UNECE_work_population___housing_census.pdf