Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Issue 87 – The Census and Personal Records

Are you interested in family history research? A lot of people are it seems, and the reasons are many. From determining which genetic line we inherited our medical conditions from, to wondering where the skeletons are lurking, or even if we are likely to inherit vast fortunes from a long lost relative.  There are as many reasons for searching through our personal histories as the people who are looking which is why Genealogy is one of the largest and fastest growing hobbies / past times around. Consequently it’s also BIG business.

The interesting thing to me though is how the world of genealogy (family history research) is benefiting from the push to digitise records, both personal records and those collected by governments, institutions and organisations across the world. What would have taken a lifetime to do BC (before computers) can now be achieved far faster and far more easily thanks to pioneers in web development, commercial database providers, information / records managers, librarians and archivists and now cloud service providers who play host to the information.

But the aspect I would like to take a look at in this edition is the accuracy of the data within these records given the recent census collection.

We would like to thank you in advance for forwarding on this edition to interested friends and colleagues. If you would like to read any of the back issues of this edition or the main edition of Information Overload you can find these on our web site –

Lorraine Bradshaw

Marketing Coordinator & Projects Officer

The Census: How accurate is the data?

Census night here in Australia has been and gone, and for those of us who live here it will be another 5 years before we have to fill another one in. Is there a collective sigh of relief going round?

But why do we have to fill them in anyway?

Of course there are many reasons why we have to fill in a census return. We get fined if we don’t!! The government needs to determine population growth and the need for infrastructure and so on, but how accurate is the data given there are huge swathes of the population who don’t or won’t fill in the census.

For example:

  • The homeless. There will be some who will have a regular shelter which they may call home, but what of those who don’t make use of these kinds of facilities (through choice or lack of places)? How are these people counted?
  • The couch surfers? There are a group of people who for one reason or another find themselves without a place to call “home”. These people spend their nights sleeping on friends / family members sofas. Are these people collected in the data? Will anyone think to add these people to their forms? How many will be added to multiple forms? Will they be incorrectly filled in as people who supposedly still live at home?
  • Then a recent news report highlighted a new (to me) group of homeless. These are people who call their car “home”. For example, women and children who may be trying to escape domestic abuse, or families who have lost everything and are unable to obtain state housing.  Whilst shelters can accommodate some, there will be a portion of the population who for one reason or another can’t be placed. Are these people counted? Where?

If that isn’t enough, consider:

  • The hospitalised
  • Prisoners
  • Hotel guests
  • Those injured and / or killed on census night
  • People who are away on holiday (overseas, travelling)
  • People who work away – the pilots, airline crews (air hostesses or whatever the term for these personnel are these days) and cruise ship workers.
  • Defence force personnel who are away from base on active duty.

Are these people counted by the business / institution or not? It could be argued that those who have a partner / family at home should be able to fill in the form on their behalf, but what of those people who live alone? While the Australian Bureau of Statistics website says that people who are hospitalised, travellers etc are counted – is this information correct? Again if these people are counted at their place where they stayed on the night, is there a double check to ensure these same people aren’t added to the home census?

Then of course there are the people who just fill the forms in “incorrectly”?

While a significant number will have filled in the forms or completed the online version with absolute accuracy, there will be a number of people who didn’t (and yes there will be one or two people out there).

For example:

  • Did you really sleep at home that night or did you spend the night at a “friends” house and don’t want the census people to know (or anyone else for that matter)?
  • Those who created a new “religion” just because they could / thought it would be amusing to say so
  • Those who were a little creative with their salary and / or job titles.
  • Those who work on the mine sites and oil rigs – and spend more time “at work” than they do at home.
  • Those who filled the forms in online and then failed to hit the send button. According to news reports I saw, some 670,000 “forgot” on the night.

I did read with interest AFTER census night, that the Australian Bureau of Statistics had spent a lot of time on advertising and marketing to advise people how they should have filled in the forms, especially for the people who do work away – but I for one didn’t see anything until after the date. Did anyone else?

Did you have issues with the census?

We would like to offer some points to consider:

One staff member does not have a computer with an internet connection at home. She reasons that she spends all day on it, why should she spend “home” time on it as well? Good point and she does have the best work/life balance out of us all. But what if she had only been left the eCensus version? And if you think that doesn’t happen, Lorraine knows of 2 people who only had eCensus envelopes left – what would they have done if they too didn’t have a computer connected to the Internet at home?  

Another member wanted to fill in the Census online but had only been left the paper version. And while you could request an eCensus number via the website, would it have been received in time? (LB didn’t click the link to see if that was instantaneous – given it was post eCensus night and didn’t want to mess up the system)… so thoughts from those who did. Our member of staff did try telephoning their offices when she got home from work, and there was no-one there. Please ABS we don’t all live on the Eastern Seaboard – something to think about for next time ?

What of the future?

For future generations of amateur historians and genealogists census information may seem like the panacea for all the answers to our many questions regarding our ancestors. But I am really not convinced of the accuracy of the information being given.

When I used to have time to trawl through the microfilm of census returns out of the UK, it used to amuse me to find people who didn’t “age” in the 10 years between collection periods. Of course, we can and should verify the data with alternative sources, but what happens if those sources are missing? As we all know, you cannot digitise sources that aren’t there. Those which are simply missing or have been lost to fires, earthquakes, building collapses, theft or any of the other “disasters” we speak about.

With many thoughts

The team at Information Enterprises Australia