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Digital transformation: The necessary fix to a broken census

Safe and stable roadways allow people to travel to work or to see family. Schools need up-to-date educational resources to teach children. Expensive and sanitary materials in hospitals help staff to save lives.

Governments have a huge responsibility to accurately understand which communities need certain resources and new developments and where the demand is highest so that they can fairly support organizations such as transportation departments, schools, hospitals, and more.

According to the United Nations, population and housing censuses are “one of the primary sources of data needed for formulating, implementing, and monitoring policies and programmes aimed at inclusive socioeconomic development and environmental sustainability.”

A Smart Census solution dashboard shows the acceptance status of thousands of enumeration areas during the pre-enumeration mapping phase.

When a census is done correctly, the valuable data it produces can have a profound effect on governmental planning and decision-making in both developed and developing nations. However, a census is not always as beneficial as it is supposed to be; sometimes, the process is broken, and the data is lacking.

A broken census means many residents are left uncounted because the processes to count them are difficult, expensive, time-consuming, and manual. It results in less-informed decisions, from passing ineffective legislation, to inadequate support for communities that need it most.

Fortunately, a broken census has a cure.

Modernizing Outdated Processes for Increased Accuracy

Traditionally, the census process has four phases: pre-enumeration mapping, enumeration, data processing, and post-enumeration analysis and dissemination.

During pre-enumeration, maps are created that divide the nation into enumeration areas, or areas where census interviews will be conducted. During enumeration, fieldworkers, or enumerators, interview anyone in their area who didn’t already self-report through previous efforts.

For the data processing step, all the data from each enumerator is processed into a digital format. Lastly, for post-enumeration analysis and dissemination, stakeholders analyze and act on the demographic data gathered.

Although the goals of the traditional process are admirable, the methodology is flawed. The mix of manual and digital reporting creates more opportunities for errors in the data and foregoes opportunities to streamline workflows.

For instance, a major challenge for enumerators is to gather the missing data on those in the “hard to count” (HTC) category, or groups that are difficult to locate and/or least likely to self-report. According to the “Population Analysis for Planners” training course from MEASURE Evaluation (funded by the United States Agency for International Development), people affected by homelessness “tend to be the hardest people to record during the census counts in both developed and developing countries.”

The U.S Census Bureau also considers populations experiencing homelessness as HTC in its July 2019 report, “Counting the Hard to Count in a Census.” To help ensure accuracy in reporting data, they recommend counting people experiencing homelessness with service-based enumeration, or counting them in locations where they are likely to receive services such as shelters or food banks.

A digital enumeration process can make it easier in many ways to capture data for HTC populations. For instance, if many individuals are receiving services, forgoing paper enumeration for an efficient digital checklist of questions saves time for everyone involved. Digital solutions can also integrate navigation capabilities for enumerators in the software, helping them better find the locations they need to visit to solicit responses, as well as abilities to report and escalate any issues they have with locating areas or entering demographic information.

The dissemination module in this Smart Census solution shows poverty indicators progress over time in different geographical levels in South Africa.

More modern solutions also remove requirements for GIS expertise among enumerators, as well as expensive hardware requirements for the statistics organizations, allowing enumerators to gather data digitally with devices they may already have.

This is especially critical for developing nations. In the United Nations’ 2017 “Principles and Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses” publication, it recommend that, “As an alternative to immediately launching full-scale GIS applications, (developing) countries may start with a simple and robust design that is likely to be understood and maintained by a wide array of users, transferable to a wide range of software packages and independent of any hardware platform.”

Statistics Botswana: Digitizing and Streamlining the National Census

Nations are already beginning to embrace more modern methods for completing census projects.

Statistics Botswana, an organization responsible for collecting and disseminating official statistics within the Republic of Botswana, has taken steps to make its 2021 Population and Housing Census a simpler process for enumerators and residents

In the past, Statistics Botswana’s process was manual and outdated. Enumerators received physical maps of their enumeration areas, and paper forms were used to collect data.

Using a new modular, digital platform that supports the entire census process, Statistics Botswana will be able to distribute digital enumeration maps. Enumerators will then use their own mobile devices in the field to conduct interviews. They are also aided by navigation and progress updating, allowing them to more easily find the hard-to-count residents.

Enumerators will collect data with their mobile devices, eliminating the need for an error-prone data-processing step.

Statistics Botswana chose a digital solution for the added benefit of the data visualization as well. After the enumeration phase is complete, stakeholders can view and filter the results in a dynamic map view, making sure every demographic is considered when they use the information going forward.

Smarter Censuses Around the Globe

Smart Census mobile applications allow Enumerators and Project Managers to easily keep track of the status of interviews at different dwelling units in enumeration areas – whether they’re in progress, completed, or accepted, or whether the dwelling unit needs to be re-evaluated.

As 2020 approaches, so do milestones in many nations’ census projects.

Reaching some of those milestones will require time-consuming and difficult processes, possibly resulting in data that does not accurately represent the population it is meant to support. Nations that stick to outdated processes and ignore the need for a digital transformation welcome issues such as missing hard-to-count individuals, using complex and expensive technology that developing nations may not be able to maintain, and employing manual workflows that require a separate data processing step

Nations such as Botswana that choose to embrace digital, modern census solutions have the ability to use smarter processes for each phase of the census, eliminating the manual work, and providing flexible and dynamic results visualization and dissemination options to decision-makers.

Now that smarter census solutions exist, it’s time to put them to work. Fix the broken census, and make sure everyone counts.

Also Read: Data sharing crucial for good governance