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Letter - Rethinking census in the digital era

2021-04-16  Staff Reporter

Letter - Rethinking census in the digital era
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Every ten years, Namibia, like many other countries, conduct a national survey through an exercise called census. Censuses primarily aim to provide an accurate estimate of all people and households in Namibia. Information from census can help the government and other organisations to improve decision-making through better planning and resource allocation for public services in local areas. For example, census information can help identify areas where additional health, educational and housing services are needed. This article outlines the best practices of conducting census in the digital era.

Traditionally, the decennial census has been performed as a door-to-door survey through an in-person enumeration to count the inhabitants of Namibia over several weeks. The in-person enumeration process is not cheap, as enumerators and vehicles are required. As such, the 2021 national census process will cost the taxpayer over N$1 billion.  Given the bleak economic situation of the country, one must ask whether spending this much money to estimate our population is value for money and explore cheaper ways to conduct a national census.

Today’s technologies produce high-quality census data that can provide an accurate picture of the population demographics in Namibia. Countries such as the United States of America, Estonia and the United Kingdom (UK) have adopted online censuses and reported improved efficacy and accuracy while reducing costs. 

Despite the fantastic opportunities presented by technology, there remain challenges such as disparities in access to the internet and devices. For example, Selma in Windhoek may have access to a smartphone and 4G connection while Tjikunda in Okangwati may only have access to a feature phone and 2G connection. 

Applying a fully digital approach to the census risks invisibilising already disadvantaged groups to policymakers. The pertinent issue is how can we ensure that census in the digital age is inclusive. 

Full utilisation of digital platforms via the internet is a requisite for an accurate and impartial population count. However, these digital platforms should take into consideration the present realities on the ground; include the vulnerable members of society who do not have the means to access these digital platforms and allow for secure online and offline transmission of data.  In Namibia, the best way to realise a digital census is through a multifaceted approach based on accessibility: 

1) leverage the good ICT infrastructure in urban areas to facilitate online census for households who can respond on their own. 

2) utilise constituency offices to capture households that do not have access to computers/internet (for households who can comfortably access constituency offices).

3) use in-field teams to enumerate households of pensioners and other residents who cannot access constituency offices. 

With the national decennial census only a few months away, one may argue that it is too late for the Namibia Statistics Agency (NSA) to set up the needed technological infrastructure. 

Though fair, the present realities largely influenced by the Covid-19 pandemic, alongside budget limitations, compel us to think differently with the view of change. Embracing technology to implement efficient ways to automate key processes for streamlined data collection for the national decennial census can be one way of doing things differently. 

Such a system can be rapidly developed using agile methods and co-creation activities; for example, through a hackathon, NSA staff, innovators and the general public can co-create solutions that will allow NSA to carry out digital surveys and automate data analysis. Ideally, co-creation has the dual benefit of reducing cost for the institution (NSA) and enhance satisfaction and acceptance for the stakeholder (residents).

Recently, NSA signed a memorandum of understanding with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK. This provides an opportunity for Namibia not to re-invent the wheel. We can learn from ONS, who were able to conduct their 2021 census mainly online. 

Therefore, we do not have to wait until the next census to conduct a digital census in 2031, as many households in urban areas across the country have the technical capacity to complete an online census and provide accurate information. We can use the restrictions caused by Covid-19 to pilot a digital census in these households, who can respond on their own, which will prepare the NSA for future digital surveys and reduce the cost of conducting the 2021 census.

In conclusion, the decennial census is an integral part of a vibrant and modern democracy, providing useful data to inform policymaking and monitor developmental goals. 

Therefore, ensure inclusive socio-economic development and a sustainable future. Technology will become a backbone of the modern census, improving the speed, accuracy and cost of conducting the census process. Most importantly, make census data open, accessible and useful for real people.

2021-04-16  Staff Reporter

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