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Traditional census 'is obsolete'

The next census is still three years away yet it already has MPs abuzz. But the country may not be ready to do it well because of the shortcoming short·com·ing  
A deficiency; a flaw.


a fault or weakness

Noun 1.
 in national address databases, apparently caused by rivalry over the ownership of intellectual property within government.

Yet the census that follows it could be very different. The Domesday-era technology of counting the population by sending out officials with forms to every household should be replaced by downloads from government databases, says the all-party Treasury Select Committee of MPs. In their 11th report, Counting the Population, the commitee says that in an era of mobile populations, the practice of conducting a household census every 10 years is obsolete. It recommends that the next census, in March 2011, "be the last census in the UK where the population is counted through the collection of census forms."

Beyond 2011, the committee recommends that we might emulate countries such as Finland, and draw statistics from the government's operational computer systems. However ministers are wary of making any such announcement in the current climate of scepticism about the government's competence at handling personal data.

Counting the challenges

But first, we have to carry out the 2011 census, expected to cost £500m - which already faces challenges. In the report, the MPs express "concern" at an issue that has surfaced repeatedly in the Free Our Data campaign: the shortcomings A shortcoming is a character flaw.

Shortcomings may also be:
  • Shortcomings (SATC episode), an episode of the television series Sex and the City
 in national address databases, caused by rivalry over the ownership of intellectual property. David Martin David Martin may refer to: Politicians
  • David Martin (Scottish politician) (born 1954), Labour MEP
  • David Martin (English politician) (born 1945), Conservative MP for Portsmouth South 1987–1997
 of the Royal Statistical Society, told the committee that "the current competition between the National Land & Property Gazetteer gazetteer (găz'ĭtēr`), dictionary or encyclopedia listing alphabetically the names of places, political divisions, and physical features of the earth and giving some information about each.  and Ordnance Survey Ordnance Survey

the British government organization that produces detailed maps of Britain and Ireland

Noun 1. Ordnance Survey - the official cartography agency of the British government
 address products was a major threat to the census operation". It was also a problem in 2001, he noted.

Angela Eagle Angela Eagle (born February 17, 1961) is Labour Member of Parliament for Wallasey. She is currently the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury based in the HM Treasury. , exchequer secretary to the Treasury The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury is one of the most junior ministerial posts in the UK Treasury, after the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Paymaster-General and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and alongside the Economic , was pressed by Mark Todd, the Labour MP for South Derbyshire South Derbyshire is a local government district in Derbyshire, England. It contains a third of the National Forest, and the council offices are in Swadlincote.

Other places in the district include Aston-on-Trent, Elvaston, Hatton, Hilton, Ingleby, Linton Melbourne, Milton
 who sits on the committee, over the failure to create the register - particularly because, as he repeatedly pointed out, all the intellectual property lies within the public sector. Eagle responded that: "I would not underestimate the difficulty of the issues surrounding [a single national address register]." Todd suggested that a Gordian knot Gordian knot: see Gordius.  approach - cutting through the complexity at a stroke of legislation - might work. "We can all hope," Eagle responded. But in the meantime Adv. 1. in the meantime - during the intervening time; "meanwhile I will not think about the problem"; "meantime he was attentive to his other interests"; "in the meantime the police were notified"
meantime, meanwhile
, the government's Office for National Statistics (ONS ONS Office for National Statistics (UK)
ONS One Night Stand
ONS Onslaught (Unreal Tournament 2004)
ONS Oncology Nursing Society
ONS Object Naming Service
ONS Offshore Northern Seas
) will prepare its own register - a needless duplication.

The Free Our Data campaign would certainly back a Gordian approach: slice through the 10 years of rows by making the data available for free, without copyright restrictions, where they are gathered by government-owned organisations.

While Todd is no fan of the free data model, we can all agree with his frustration at the way that rows about data owned by public-sector organisations are holding back the development of another public-sector resource, an accurate census. The report recommends that the government "remove any outstanding obstacles to the production of an address register".

But what are those obstacles? Only they know. Todd said: "I don't know Don't know (DK, DKed)

"Don't know the trade." A Street expression used whenever one party lacks knowledge of a trade or receives conflicting instructions from the other party.
 whether it's the trading fund status of Ordnance Survey, legalistic le·gal·ism  
1. Strict, literal adherence to the law or to a particular code, as of religion or morality.

2. A legal word, expression, or rule.
 barriers or failure of the will by government."

Controversial innovations

The next Census Day is due to take place on March 27, 2011. The 2011 census will feature several technological innovations, including an option to complete the form online. Another controversial proposal is to deliver forms through the post, rather than by enumerators on foot - increasing the need for an accurate address register.

The MPs' report also seeks assurances about another controversial innovation - outsourcing. One shortlisted bidder is the US firm Lockheed Martin. The report raises concern that personal information gathered through the 2011 Census could be obtained by the US government though the United States Patriot Act. It asks the government "to take clear legal advice and advice from the US State Department and to publish it in response to this report".

Beyond 2011, the ONS should abandon form-filling entirely, in favour of a regular snapshot of databases such the National Insurance number, the Worker Registration System and NHS NHS
National Health Service

NHS (in Britain) National Health Service
 patient registration data. The committee recommends that a pilot "population register" count is carried out alongside the 2011 census to compare the effectiveness of such a system with that of the census.

The idea is not new. In 1990, Finland became the first country to carry out a census in this way. However, while a fraction of the cost of a conventional household survey, a national data match would be controversial in the current climate of suspicion and scepticism about government IT systems. But the MPs' report notes that trust in official statistics is also rock-bottom. A European Commission survey last year asked, in each of the 27 EU member states, whether the public trust official statistics. "The Netherlands, Finland and Sweden were in the top five. The UK came an uncomfortable 27th."

Taking stock

Amount the next census, to be held in 2011, will cost the nation: £500m

Years government has tried and failed to create national address register: 10

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Date:Jun 5, 2008
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