Who decides who counts in national data?

Data Values Digest #8 by Joshua Powell and Janet McLaren

Dear partners,

The U.S. Census Bureau is set to release widely-accessible data from the 2020 population count this month. It’s hard to imagine a worse scenario for statisticians than this one last year: The U.S.’ first census since 2010 took place amidst the pandemic and numerous natural disasters. It was also highly-politicized, resulting in door-knocking that ended earlier than planned and fears that some groups would not be counted. 

Censuses around the world have been stymied since 2020, with more than 60 countries postponing or adapting their scheduled counts due to the pandemic. And while barriers in the current round got lots of attention, this situation is far from unique: census-taking is notoriously hard and always political. 

We should be especially concerned about who is left out of these counts and why. Undercounting people is the norm—not an exception. Countries routinely undercount young kids, Indigenous people, migrants, renters, rural residents, and racial minorities. Sometimes this is due to people who can’t be reached or who may want to not be counted because of risks associated with visibility. But governments also intentionally seek to underrepresent people or groups to preserve or gain political power.

In other words, we see the real-world translation of societal power structures into who is counted—and who isn’t—in national census data. As a result, service delivery, budget allocation, electoral systems, and other systems can be skewed in ways that further marginalizes communities. Global agencies, in the interest of neutrality, have often tried to tiptoe around these conflicts despite the enormous importance of accurate census data in sustainable development.

While rarely a high-profile development priority, accurate population counts are vital to policy making and tracking development goals. Census-taking is “the framework over which nearly all other social and economic statistics are laid.” So how can we acknowledge the controversy that comes with counting and still encourage technically sound, accurate, and timely population counts around the world? The Data Values Project is wrestling with identifying practical ways to include people in data to improve equity in deciding who counts.

Many countries are focused on improving data quality and inclusivity. The Australian government has committed to hiring Indigenous enumerators to address its troubled history of undercounting people in those communities, and national statistics agencies in Colombia and Peru have worked with local groups to make census questions more inclusive. The Global Partnership’s Karen Bett this summer wrote about ways to improve population data based on work by the Administrative Data Collaborative. In Malawi, where paper-based counting and territorial boundary-shifts posed substantial obstacles, national statisticians partnered with other departments and organizations to create updated maps, reduce costs, and improve the quality of the 2018 census using satellite data, computer-assisted interview software, and wireless and online data transmission. 

The Data Values Project wants to hear from you. How have countries and communities approached population counting in inclusive or innovative ways? Comment below or email us at datavalues@data4sdgs.org to share your thoughts.

Until next week, 

Janet and Josh

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