Census response rate estimated over 96%, but is there any trust left?

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday October 12, 2016

Preliminary data indicates a response rate above 96% for the 2016 Census according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which has set itself a pass mark of 93.3% to be sure the information is of sufficient quality.

If the encouraging estimate comes true, it would show alarming predictions of a significant boycott over privacy from a former ABS chief and the anti-Census campaign that followed were all bark and no bite.

It would also show the infamous decision to switch off the online form on Census night under pressure from fairly ordinary cyber-mischief — which caused widespread inconvenience and only added to the impression of the ABS running its flagship aground — had little impact on the success of the statistical project either.

However news outlets have not exactly jumped at the chance to report the latest ABS message. More than 24 hours after the press release dropped into The Mandarin’s inbox, only one article reporting its contents was found online, and that was a pithy 88-word summary by a wire service.

Perhaps the idea that this year’s troubles have not dented the response rate at all is just too far removed from the narrative of budget cuts, bungling, and buck-passing but at the same time, too difficult to refute out of hand.

The ABS explains the preliminary response rate is an educated guess based on its estimate of the maximum of 9.8 million private dwellings to be surveyed, minus the ones that are ignored because they’re unoccupied on the night. According to the agency:

“The number of dwellings occupied on Census night is always fewer than anticipated, and to date around 1 million dwellings have been identified as unoccupied.”

The true response rate won’t be known until next April and may well differ from this week’s estimate, but somewhere around 96% is in line with the past two results. In 2011, more than 10% of households appeared empty on the night, but 96.5% returned forms in total, compared with 95.8% in 2006.

The agency reports it has 8.4 million household forms to process so far from the roughly 8.8 million dwellings it thinks were occupied on the night. Of those, 4.9 million came through the online form despite its unscheduled downtime.

An increase in the “higher quality data” that comes via the web compared to the 2011 Census means the new statistics should start coming out over two months earlier, according to Census chief Duncan Young, due to quicker processing time. The first results will be out on April 11, 2017, with the second round two months later.

Young offers another apology for “the inconvenience caused by the system outage on Census night” and thanks Australians for taking part.

Not only did most of the media ignore the new Census update, they even declined its ready-made listicle of facts you probably didn’t know about the 2016 Census:

  • This year’s Census is the first to capture data on the Pitcairners of Norfolk Island, many of whom have listed their unique Norf’k language.
  • Over 25,000 forms went to ships, cruise liners and off-shore mining rigs.
  • The 2016 Census is the most accessible yet, reaching the AA rating which means vision-impaired, blind and deaf people could complete it without assistance.
  • Australia’s “remote national parks, pastoral properties, roadhouses, mining camps and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities” collectively hold over 36,000 dwellings.
  • Special field officers even count homeless people who are “sleeping rough, staying in supported accommodation, staying in rooming or boarding houses or living in overcrowded dwellings”.
  • Over 30,000 respondents used the Translating and Interpreting Service.
  • The ABS delivers information about the Census and advertising in 39 languages.
  • The biggest work area for a single Census field staff member was 1.922 million square kilometres.

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