Census benefits more than just government

While census data is essential to the government, it is also used within a variety of other domains,” says Kefiloe Masiteng, deputy director-general: population and social statistics at Statistics South Africa (Stats SA).

The organisation is the country’s official statistic agency, mandated to provide the state with information about the economic, demographic, social and environmental situation in the country. A national census operates on two planes — longitudinal and point-in-time. With continued censuses, each providing a ‘snapshot’, a fairly comprehensive picture of a country can be built up along a longitudinal time frame. The longitudinal timing is not haphazard. The United Nations has a global directive for all countries to conduct a national census every five years.

International planning
The census data allows international organisations to plot a country’s progression and define its current standing. This type of information impacts on funding requirements, as well as investment. Developmental analysis is also used for monitoring purposes, such as with the millennium development goals. This global action plan aims to achieve eight anti-poverty goals by 2015 and provides numerical benchmarks for tackling poverty.

The goals are:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Develop a global partnership of development

Of note is that it has been 10 years since South Africa has conducted a national census. Due to the high undercount in 2001 (when a statistically significant amount of people were missed), the 2006 national census was postponed and a large-scale community survey was conducted instead.

Government planning
From a point-in-time perspective, data gathered from the national census allows for critical evidence-based decision making through all levels of government, regarding planning, monitoring and evaluation over a five-year period. “The census data offers demographic, population and economic baseline information,” says Masiteng. Census data ensures equity in distribution of government serices and informs the allocation of government resources.

It can assist in policy outcomes in a number of areas, such as assessing programmes on gender equity, the ageing population and infant, children and productive groups or planning, monitoring and evaluating housing, health and welfare programmes. Data can also be used as a baseline for other essential statistical information, like electricity supply and demand or for delineating electoral districts. Masiteng says that the breadth and depth of the information cover a multitude of areas that government is required to address.

Focus on smaller areas
While the information itself is essential for measuring social change and progress, as well as isolating development gaps across time, the small area resolution — data that delineates the characteristics of the population within small geographic areas and small communities — is vital for planning for the unique needs of these areas and population groups.

Individual impact
“It’s in the interest of every inhabitant within South Africa to participate in Census 2011. The information gathered impacts directly on government policy and direction, education and service provision, which in turn affects every person living in South Africa,” says Masiteng. The census provides specific information on the characteristics of people in South Africa. This includes age, sex, education, occupation, economic activity and where people live. The various sets of data provide numerous analytical outcomes, such as a country’s population profile, resource planning gaps, a way of monitoring core areas from skills development and capacity building to health-related programmes and access to services, as well as measures of economic activity. Various variables, from demographic to disability and income, can indicate which sectors of society require further support.

Economic insight
“The information gathered provides a great deal of insight into South Africa’s economy,” says Masiteng. “For example, education and employment levels inform employment statistics, barriers to entry in the labour market and the ratio between skills and demand. By using key variables — such as gender, race and education level — a deeper understanding can be gained.” Masiteng says that census information allows for a better understanding of the dynamics of poverty, as well as the impact of movement from unskilled and semi-skilled work in the primary and secondary sectors towards more highly skilled work in the tertiary sector. Various rates and figures can be calculated from census data. These include the unemployment rate, labour absorption rate, labour force participation rate and the ratio of the labour force to the labour supply.

“The national census is the dashboard of the economy, like an aeroplane’s dashboard. It tells you how many passengers are on board and where the plane is, so you can decide at what height you must fly, what speed, and what you must do to stop stalling,” says economist Mike Schussler of economics.co.za. He notes that because of the Census 2001 undercount, a number of institutions and businesses had to make estimations around population figures, with numbers reaching as high as 57-million. Schussler says that a national census with a statistically acceptable undercount is essential.

Wider applications
Results are not only used by government but by civil society, business, students and academics, with the latter primarily focusing on research. Census statistics are also used as benchmarks for statistical compilation or as a sampling frame for official statistics surveys which inform public policy at far shorter time intervals than the five-year interval of national censuses. These, in turn, provide further insights into demographic and socio-economic trends.

Informing business
“There are numerous ways in which business can make use of census data,” says Masiteng. “The information can assist with planning and strategy. It can be used in product development, including the forecasting of demand for products and services.” Language data is part of the released statistical information. Masiteng says that this can inform decisions around how to communicate to a customer base. Alexan Carrilho is the head of quality and information security and the business unit director for sampling at Ipsos Markinor, a company that provides research within a number of areas, including marketing and public opinion and public affairs. She says that the census data assists with the selection of elements from the population. The census data is used as a sampling frame, which is used to draw the sample for several surveys. “The information is also used in the geographical information systems and for providing input into proposals and presentations, among other things,” says Carrilho.

Individual uses
“Beyond the direct benefit that individuals gain from the census data being used to inform government planning and decision making, people can use it in other ways,” says Masiteng. In particular he refers to individuals being better informed about buying a home, job relocation or starting a small business.

Access to the information
Results for Census 2011 will be released on 30 November 2012. “Public and business have complete access to the information. It is available free of charge and can be downloaded off the Stats SA website at www.statssa.gov.za,” says Masiteng. Tabulation software that assists with data collection is available on the site in a self-service format. Stats SA has also created a Census Handbook, available on the website www.statssa.gov.za, which provides detailed explanations of how to analyse the data. “A census is about knowing ourselves and gaining the knowledge to create a better life for all,” says Masiteng. “Participating in the census is the first step.”

How do people use economic census data?

  • To study the industry
  • To locate business markets or business sites
  • To design sales territories and set quotas
  • To evaluate business opportunities and to enhance business opportunity presentations.

Adaptation of www.census.gov/epcd/www/ec97use2.htm

Census 2011 bottom line

  • When: The Census 2011 count occurs from the night of 9 October to 31 October 2011.
    • Participation and access: Data gathering is dependant on access and response from everyone in South Africa and it is a legal obligation to participate.
    • Confidentiality: Information collected is protected and confidential under the Statistics Act, 1999 (Act No. 6 of 1999) and only used for statistical purposes. The full act can be read at www.statssa.gov.za/about_statssa/statistics_act.asp
    • No individual-identifying information: When information is processed, names and identifying details will be discarded after quality checks. Data is also used in an aggregated form and is never reduced to individual level — an individual cannot be identified.
    • Security checks: Credible enumerators (census counters) will have gone through stringent security checks.
    • Making contact: In the event that you have not been contacted, call the enumerator. The contact details will be on posters in your community.
    • Queries: A toll-free census hotline is available on 0800 110 248.

    This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as an advertorial supplement

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