How the Census moved a nation to online by default

By Harley Dennett

August 9, 2016

Census ABS site

If the Census team had stuck to what worked in the past, that trajectory would have blown out their 2016 Census costs by $105 million, used 327,000 kilograms more paper, 3500 litres more glue and 1100 kilograms more ink.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics struggled to recruit the 29,000 door-knocking collectors used during the last Census in 2011, and projections indicated they’d need almost twice that number (54,000) this year.

Duncan Young
Duncan Young

“Our current approach was unsustainable,” says Duncan Young, national program manager of the Census of Population and Housing. It’s his name at the bottom of the letters that every Australian household received in the weeks leading up to tonight’s snapshot.

“In less than 50% of cases did anybody answer. That’s a lot of expensive door-knocking for no result.”

Taking cues internationally — apparently there’s a tight-knit global community of Census statisticians, as independence from other parts of government is critical to their responsibility — Duncan’s team made the decision that now was the time to make the shift to digital-by-default.

The ABS estimates 65% of Australians will opt for the online version, that’s some 16 million people, just on double the number who used the online form in 2011. Three partners are helping make that happen.

First, Australia Post will replace the ubiquitous door-knocking collectors to make the initial contact with households, via business-like letters. Households will get a reminder again through the postal service after Census night if they didn’t respond to the first letter. Young says field staff will only visit homes when they still haven’t completed the Census after the reminder. “Mostly because people just don’t get around to it, and need an additional prompter.”

Making the case to switch

CSIRO helped Young’s team with behavioural insights on what type of envelope design and letter language will get the most number of people to make the switch from paper to online.

“One of the key things for us is how to get people to open the letter when it doesn’t have their name on it,” says Young of the problem that isn’t unique to the ABS. The team originally thought it needed to be bright and distinctive — but apparently that’s not as helpful as plain white. “White means business,” a now wisened Young says after extensive testing with CSIRO’s behavioural economics unit. “Don’t make it look like junk mail.”

Incremental improvements though behavioural insights is rather tricky when you can only do a genuine run every five years. The CSIRO/ABS team-up developed 49 letter and envelop combinations that were initially tested on 10,000 households, before narrowing it down to five variants sent to 35,000 households. They finally arrived at a version which saw a 35% response rate than their control prototype. Young describes it as very simple, clear, uses whitespace and simple visuals:

“It should save us around a million home visit follow ups.

“As statisticians think we need to explain everything to people, but the more information we gave people the less likely they were to understand and make a choice to do so something.”

‘A good reminder our independence’

Finally, IBM is their technology partner, ensuring there will be enough capacity for the Census night influx and security of transmission and storage until the records are destroyed before the next Census.

The fundamentals of the security are the same for the last few Censuses, but the technology advances each time. Scalability planning has mean there shouldn’t be the kind of outages seen during tax time, for instance. It’ll also work on mobile phones, if that’s the only device you have available, and dial-up too.

For the households there needed to be as few barriers as possible, just a 12 digit unique code to start the process. Once underway, and there’s a potential for private data to be in the system, a second factor is required to view the partially completed form: a password generated when the household first registers. People don’t need to sign up for any accounts — so no myGov — and it wouldn’t be very helpful for an activity that they only undertake once every five years.

Young is adamant about the need for physical and cognitive separation from other government systems:

“Census records aren’t permanently linked to an identity, so having it separate from those systems is a good reminder of our independence from other government agencies.”

However, data from other agencies does help give the ABS new and useful information for government. For instance, Death records used to combined with Census to improve statistics around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life expectancy.

Names will be destroyed

The engagement exercise has been extensive, also shifting increasingly online, with short videos explaining why it’s important. But after the final weeks of criticism, there will be many that feel it hasn’t been enough.

“We’re trying to rebuff some of the inaccuracies reported in the media. There’s no permanent retention of names in this Census, there’s no de-anonymising of the Census, names and addresses will be destroyed within four years.

“Yes, laws can change in a country, but we’re talking about something that’s been in place since 1905 as a fundamental part of our country and so to suggest that it’s highly up for change in the next four years, next two years, or next one year is quite unlikely.”

Young adds that even as the head of the census program the only form he gets to see is his own. ABS employees has a legislated lifetime personal responsibility around never releasing identifiable information. The criminal penalties they face are stronger than anything else around.

Never stop evolving

Beyond the cost savings, the benefits of having a majority of households complete online will flow to users of the Census products — also mostly other government agencies — as datasets will begin to flow two months earlier than previously.

Quality of life improvements available online include reusing address information throughout the form, including for subsequent household members. Users also aren’t faced with questions they need to skip over. Surveys from earlier Censuses indicate users feel the online version is 30% shorter, when in fact it’s been the same length for decades: 61 questions.

There’s continual pressure to add new topics to the Census. “People always want their pets counted,” says Young. Dietary needs, vegetarian or vegan, are frequently proposed, as well as identity questions like sexual orientation. While the Census does measure the journey to work (obviously critical for government) it hasn’t measured journey to education, nor long-term health conditions.

Young and his predecessors have had a very good excuse to forcing the issue of taking questions off if new ones are added: “We’re at the hard limit of the paper binding and gluing process, so it provided a convenient boundary.”

Perhaps the most contentious question, still, is the one covering religion. This year the ‘no religion’ option moves for the first time from the bottom of the checkbox list to the top. Normally the possible answers are ordered by popularity in the previous Census, but it’s cognitively challenging for users to see a null response in the middle. “If you’re asking what kind of car someone has, first you’d want to establish if they have a car.”

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