Jo Runjajic with an interactive exhibit on Australia's census.

Questacon, courtesy of the Australian Bureau of Statistics

Jo Runjajic with an interactive exhibit on Australia's census.

Data check: Toward a more user-friendly census

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Jo Runjajic’s job at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is to improve the country’s next census in 2016. For any country, a better head count would result in better data for the public institutions, private businesses, and researchers that rely on the information. But those improvements won’t happen, she believes, until governments abandon their traditional way of thinking about how to collect data and adapt to today’s digital realities.

“We need to think first about the respondents, rather than what is easiest for us,” said Runjajic, assistant director of census operations at ABS, in a talk here at a recent international conference on census methods sponsored by the U.S. Census Bureau. The U.S. agency is hoping to use digital platforms in 2020 to collect the data and also reduce the number of fieldworkers needed to track down those who fail to fill out the census questionnaire the first time around. But Runjajic thinks that governments around the world will need to become more agile and tech-savvy if they hope to lower costs and achieve a more accurate census.

In a follow-up conversation after returning to Canberra, Runjajic explained what she meant. The biggest expense in conducting a census is tracking down those who have ignored the government’s first invitation to fill out a census questionnaire. So increasing the pool of self-responders can save a ton of money.

One obvious way to reach people, she says, is through the Internet. Many countries have added an online option to their periodic census in hopes of both saving paper and reducing the number of fieldworkers needed to track down the laggards. But deciding to go digital is only the first step, she says. Census officials also have to think about what people expect—and how they behave—when they go online.

For example, as part of the 2006 and 2001 Australian censuses, ABS gave out a website address and “told people to use their personal computers to find us,” she says. “But we learned that people don’t want to go to a URL. Instead, they would type in search terms on Google,” she says.

Unfortunately, many of those search terms took people to the wrong site. “They might find a site for people complaining about the census” or something else, Runjajic says. The lesson: “We need to figure out how they are likely to be communicating in the future, and tailor our approach to those habits.”

Using that information is also critical in any attempt to preregister people for an upcoming census. Signing up lots of people in advance would greatly reduce the amount of time and money needed to build the master list of bona fide addresses needed to conduct a census. (A census is actually a survey of households, each attached to a particular address or location. But a significant percentage of those addresses turn out to be bogus, vacant, or places of business rather than dwellings.)

Runjajic leads an informal group of census officials from six English-speaking countries—Canada, the United States, England, Scotland, New Zealand, and Australia—who have identified preregistration as one especially promising approach to improving their next headcount. At the conference, Runjajic demonstrated an ABS pilot project that features an augmented reality app called viewa and a government-issued postcard. Scanning the postcard with a smart phone or tablet takes people to the ABS website, where they can register for the 2016 census and learn more about the agency.

Extensive preregistration would give ABS a huge leg up on preparing its master address lists for 2016, she says. “In the past, we’d mail out material with information on how to find us,” she says. “That required a lot of paper, and also made us dependent on the postal service, which is not always reliable.” People also liked the idea of registering online and avoiding a knock on the door, she says.

The app created an unexpected problem, however: In an online world that fosters a sense of immediacy, people didn’t want to wait until 2016 to fill out the census. “ ‘Why can’t I do it right now?’ ” Runjajic recalls a typical reaction. “They want their online interactions to be more convenient, and we were telling them that they had to wait until 2016. That didn’t make any sense to them.”

ABS officials are hoping that preregistration will help them verify 80% of the addresses in their master list before launching the 2016 census. That will allow them to use e-mail to invite people to fill out the census rather than having to send out an army of enumerators to drop off the material. The agency hopes that and other changes will reduce per-household costs from $13 in 2011 to $9 in 2016.

Preregistration for the census is one element in a broader campaign to encourage Australians to use one website, myGov, for all their government interactions, including voting and paying their taxes. But for that campaign to succeed, she says, “the public needs to trust the government, and the government needs to trust the people.” Only then, she says, can the government devise and implement a system that residents will find seamless and satisfying.

Although nobody can be certain how people’s online behavior will evolve over time, Runjajic thinks that governments can do a much better job of identifying trends and using them to improve services. “It’s not really about predicting the future,” she says. “It’s more a question of observing what’s already starting to happen. Because what the early adapters are doing today will eventually become mainstream. And that’s where we need to be.”

Posted in Policy Data Check