Could 2021 be the UK’s last census?

Written by Sam Trendall on 30 November 2020 in News
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New information sources could mean the decennial data-gathering exercise will not require mass surveys, according to the recently appointed deputy national statistician

Copies of the 2011 census ready to be sent out   Credit: PA

As new sources of information and data science techniques emerge, the census that will be conducted across England and Wales next year may be the last that takes place, the deputy national statistician has suggested.

In 2017, the Office for National Statistics opened its Data Science Campus, with a remit to explore new data sources and means of analysing them in support the production of official statistics or in ways that deliver data-led insights much more quickly than traditional methods such as surveys.

Its work to date has included tracking shipping movements to provide insight into economic performance, and using natural-language processing methods to draw out key themes from the responses to public consultations. 

Speaking to PublicTechnology, Alison Pritchard, who last month joined as deputy national statistician and director general for data capability, said that the ONS is “one of only three national statistical offices that are able to bring very forward-looking data science into the work that we do”.

Looking forward, this expertise in emerging techniques may impact even the longest-standing work led by the ONS.


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“The Data Science Campus is another area of key focus for the ONS, and one thing worth reflecting on is that we have the old historic, right the way through to the new,” Pritchard said. “We have done the census since 1801 and have the 2021 census coming up, but we also have the ability to work with data in such a way that we may not need to do another census.”

PublicTechnology asked Pritchard if this meant she believed that new sources of data – and the means of interpreting them – could mature enough in the next decade to eliminate the need for another mass survey of citizens across England and Wales.

“That’s got to be the right question,” she said. “We are fully focused on doing a 2021 census to the full degree of quality – despite the challenges that are felt globally – but we are also thinking about, as we work with more administrative data and with the work that we are doing on mobility, including on the Data Science Campus, what is the relationship [of that work] with the census in due course. But 2021 [will be a] full-on census… with data that will be used for some time to come.”
 

Look out in the coming days for a full write-up of our discussion with Pritchard, including lots of insights into the use of statistics to support coronavirus response, data sharing across government – and her plans for to embark on an epic voyage in a kayak.

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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