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How Countries Vary in Population Measurement

Tue Nov 30 2010
Robert Groves
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While the United States census is mandated in its national constitution to occur each 10 years, other countries do not have such a constitutional requirement. While all developed countries have procedures to measure their populations, they vary greatly in their designs.

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Many countries take their censuses in years that end in “0” (like the US) or in “1” like Australia and the United Kingdom. So these are the best years for “census watching” around the world.

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There are some interesting things happening. India, with a population of over 1 billion, is mounting a full population identification system as part of its 2011 census operations. Fingerprints or iris images will be taken, and a unique identification number given to each resident. The goal in this endeavor is to improve the efficiency of government assistance programs in providing accurate identification of those eligible for benefits, to provide to banks and other commercial entities positive proof of identity for economic transactions, and to reduce the abuse of false identities in the society.

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In essence, India is building a population register, not unlike those that have been in place in the Scandinavian countries for generations, where they alone are used to count their people instead of carrying out an in-person census as we do. Such population registers, if they are kept up-to-date, permit countries to provide small area counts of their populations instantaneously, and very cheaply, relative to the cost of census. The use of population registers does, however, raise concerns among some about potential abuses of such databases in the hands of a perverse government.

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Canada, for the first time, will use a short-form census for its initial measurement. It will be followed by a voluntary long form sample survey. In prior years, the long form (which contains the short form questions) was randomly assigned to a sample of households, with mandatory compliance. A larger sample size is being drawn for the voluntary survey than traditionally used for the mandatory one, increasing the cost of the survey substantially. The survey will also exclude certain parts of the population normally covered by a census. This was a late decision of the new Canadian government, and the census world is interested in the reaction of the Canadian residents to the new design. Interestingly, many countries such as the United Kingdom still intend to use a “long form” census for their entire population during this round of censuses (last done for the U.S. in 1930).

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Another trend we are watching is the attempt to completely eliminate paper from the process. In some countries, Internet data collection can help, but governments need to be sure that only one accurate response is provided for each residence, so some advance contact with the residents is needed to provide an appropriate password to prevent fraud.

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Our watching the experiences of other countries taking their censuses is a wonderful way for us to evaluate alternative ways of doing our census. This season of censuses gives us lots to think about.

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