By Alistair Towers | 11 Apr 2017

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has launched the initial round of regional data from the 2016 Australian Census, providing a preview of results as well as a snapshot of what makes up the ‘typical’ Australian at the national, as well as state and territory levels.

The results so far will have widespread benefits and long-term uses for our researchers, demographers and policy consultants here at Urbis. Our experts will use this data to inform their opinion to help our clients build and shape the cities and communities of the future.

Following this initial regional release, the results of the Census held on August 9 2016 will be released in 2017 in two main stages.

The first data from the 2016 Census will be released from 27 June 2017. The data will cover a wide range of Census topics and be presented in a variety of ways to cater for the needs of different users. Data will be released for almost all geographies for place of enumeration and place of usual residence.

Data regarding employment, qualifications and population mobility is scheduled to be released from 17 October 2017. The full release schedule can be found here.

Below, National GIS Manager Alistair Towers, offers some thoughts on the value of a national census, with more insights on technology trends to come closer to the first stage release of the Census in June. 

In the future, I can see a role for multiple data sources augmenting demographic data. Knowing weekly population data would allow thinking and planning to take place on a truly global scale.

Like many geographers, I am excited about the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ impending release of the 2016 census data. The small area census data will bring certainty in numbers to our demographers, civic planners and social policymakers when it’s released on 27 June this year.

But the census is an expensive exercise, costing the Australian taxpayer around $470 million, or roughly $20 per head. Are we getting value for our money? And are there alternative ways to enumerate our population?

In Australia, we are lucky enough to be able to afford the luxury of a census every five years; other countries count every 10 years or worse, sporadically when they can get funding to do so. Given the incredible rate of growth in the number of people alive on this planet, we can’t even seem to get close to an accurate population number.

The latest numbers from the United Nations puts the current world population at 7.3 billion, with a forecast reaching 10.9 billion by 2100. But other predictions differ markedly, such as Deutsche Bank, which believes the figure will only reach eight billion. Given that these numbers vary wildly by 2.9 billion (or a whopping 26.6 per cent), it goes to show how experts struggle with current methods of counting the planet’s population.

Now, imagine if we could count how many people lived on the planet every week or even every day? Well, soon technology will be able to make this possible. The coming together of machine learning algorithms and daily captured satellite imagery make this a very real possibility.

However, does that mean we need to keep running a census? In the short term, yes. All the latest developments in science and technology won’t tell us the real details: the geographical diversity of income distribution; the age; ethnicity; or gender information; all the demography that describes the rich social tapestry of our cities and country. The current method used by the Facebook connectivity lab even uses census data to calibrate their model.

In the future, I can see a role for multiple data sources augmenting demographic data. Knowing weekly population data would allow thinking and planning to take place on a truly global scale. For example, climate science doesn’t stop at country boundaries. Nationalistic arguments would no longer be as relevant, though still important. Remote communities would be more frequently enumerated, for a significantly lower cost than physically sending people out to do the counting.

Sure, the census is expensive, but it is important. The custodians of the data (our government) should be held accountable to us the people to take appropriate care of our digital records. Last year’s census collection exercise was not a public success and likely dented the absolute trust that citizens put in government. It will be critical next time to ensure a smooth data collection process takes place. Would we have the same level of trust in a commercial business that turns a profit based on its ability to profile users and target advertise? Probably not.

Other sources of data such as social media, telecommunications and banking institutions also have empirical knowledge about our activities. These describe our everyday actions and can be used to describe our intentions, such as whether we are aspirational, frugal or have other interests we would not disclose as part of the census taking process. These so-called psychographic indicators augment the demographic data to enrich the data at the level of the individual. More and more, our electronic transactions describe our personalities, which in turn allow us to be segmented and profiled to an even greater degree than ever before.

Bringing all this data together could produce an amazing wealth of knowledge about our citizens – an ultimate census. Whether we would be comfortable accepting this will largely depend on citizen trust in data custodians. High profile breaches of data, such as those that took place recently at Yahoo and Ashley Maddison reduce that trust. Yet the next generation entering the workforce are true digital natives. They have less inhibition with the storage of their digital footprint.

Bring on census release on 27June – there will be many interesting stories that will emerge out of the census data about the ever-changing multicultural society that we are fortunate enough to live in.

Alistair Towers View Profile