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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Coming to our census

Census 2006. The first Tuesday of March in a year ending with a 1 or 6, ie. today.

Firstly, the gathering of data on individuals and dwellings for the entire country is useful in many ways beyond the various functions of government and democratic institutions which rely on the information. Secondly, the methods used and the data sought will forever be problematic and controversial. For this reason in the past I have either not filled in a census form or have made sure it is truly anonymous.

The biggest fault is that anonymity is theoretical only. By insisting that full names be recorded on each form and the dwelling form we must rightly be suspicious that claims (such as the one I heard from a census worker) that they cut that info out before processing is a lie. There is no reason for a full name to be entered - none at all. To argue otherwise and assert that they will not use it is simply not credible - they don't demand from you things that they will not use. I will not put my name on it. "Jo Blogs" will be just fine - it will not alter the real data they legitimately may be interested in.

They obviously seek to identify individuals because they then ask for the full date of birth. Once again 01/01/1974 will be fine for that too - all they need is a year, not the exact date. The only reason they would want that is to so they know precisely who you are so you are not anonymous. So too with Q.39 demanding to know not just the exact address but the name of the building you work in is. And very detailed questions about employment. Hmmm, what department would want to know all about that when they cross-check the exact employer name and address with your exact name and date of birth?

Other problems:

1. Opt-outs: Respondents may opt out of answering Q.18 (religion) by ticking the "object to answering this question" box, so too Q.25 ("How many babies have you given birth to?"). When some questions have that option and not others it begs the question why? Many people could point to other questions that they object to answering - but no opt out for them.

2. Citizenship: We are asked in Q.9 "Which country were you born in?" and in Q.10 "When did you first arrive to live in NZ?". That is fine, but I think it would be more important to ask what your residency status is: NZ Citizen/Permanent Resident/Resident (other)/Working student/etc. We don't even know how many overstayers there are here (est. c.20,000) because of an entrenched bureaucratic and political negligence and tolerance for overstaying - this ineptitude is also borne of a historical malaise over the importance of NZ citizenship, esp. since you don't even have to be a citizen to vote! It's about time this shit was sorted out. I had to sigh when a TV news report yesterday had census workers encouraging illegal residents to fill it in so they would count and that they would have their anonymity respected. Ohhh forgawdsake. I want to know what the population of NZ citizens in this country is - that, apparently is too much to ask. We have to ask ourselves why they don't want us to know.

3. Fad questions: It used to be how many chickens do you own, or radio and television sets etc. now it's Q.16 & 17 on disabilities (I object to the vagueness of the question rather than anything else - as wearing correcting lenses is a form of handicap too), Q.21 & 22 on smoking cigarettes (but not pipes or cigars). Next time it may be "Does your household have or use a bbq?"

4. The questions they leave out: I would like to see one about pets - how many in a household and what types. Local councils esp. would find that useful. If they have smoking questions what about a liquor question? They have a question in the dwelling form on what is used to heat your house - but not what you use to cool it. They seem to want to know the ownership status and relationship the occupants have with the dwelling but not what the dwelling is actually constructed of - they ask about number of rooms - what about is it a brick/concrete/wooden house? And Q.4 in the dwelling form about the description of your house lumps a house with a small annex in with a 30 floor apartment tower. They want to know all about your job but not a single question about culture and recreation - isn't that important too? What about: "Are you a member of a club or society? - If so what sort - sporting/cultural?" etc. and/or "Do you play sports or physically exercise? - If so how many hours per week?" etc. Alas, we are all just treated as economic units: Q.30 - 46 are about income. employment and communting.

A problem for some white people (apparently):

Q.11 Which ethnic group do you belong?
Arguments: from a "Chinese" anmd a "New Zealander". I think the whole "debate" is stupid and does those white people arguing that "NZ European" does not describe themselves no credit. If they genuinely object to answering any question about ethnicity then that is a different matter - but that doesn't seem to be their argument. If we are to take the census form at face value at some point a European becomes a "New Zealand European" - that is a decision that the individual must make. But so too the proper description of Maori is "New Zealand Maori" (as opposed to Cook Islands Maori) - but Maori aren't so uptight as to complain about it (although it raises the question of a New Zealand Cook Island Maori). One day I hope that Pakeha won't be uptight either.

If they want to play silly buggers then that is their right. I think it is far more important that as many people as possible write "Jo Bloggs" as their full name and put their day and month of birth as 01/01.


At 8/3/06 3:29 pm, Blogger stephen said...

Point taken about the potential for abuse. Nonetheless, there is a historical and sentimental benefit for future generations. My father is currently delighting in uncovering some long-lost family history which has only been possible because the UK census records from the 19th century have names recorded.

Is there any evidence that census data has in fact been abused through improper data sharing?

At 10/3/06 11:44 pm, Blogger t selwyn said...

I don't think there is any evidence - but given the nature of it (as discussed in the post) it would be all to easy to "run some checks" if all the data was computerised (as it it).

Would it not be negligent for an intelligence service (for example) not to utilise the available data?

At 11/3/06 6:24 pm, Blogger Rob Good said...

I just want to know how many of us there are....


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