Census 2011Today is Census Day - the day where, once every ten years, the government takes an official count of its citizens. This year I've been getting annoyed with how people are whining over how many questions there are and how intrusive it is.

So, what is a census?

A census is simply a study of a population. During the 18th Century, the UK's population had expanded so vastly and quickly that the government took the first modern-day census.

Between its arrival in 1801 and 1831, the census was merely a head count. Although details about households and individuals were noted at a local level, these were destroyed and a statistical summary passed on to authorities.

As time went on the census was developed to gather more information, including names, birth places, occupation and disabilities. Today, the census asks up to 14 questions about where you live and up to 42 on each individual. I say 'up to' because some questions are conditional (for example if you're under 16 your individual questions are pretty much halved) and the religion question is optional.

Census data is used by the Government - at national and local levels - to plan services, allocate funding, decide on future building and transport projects. It's vital this information is as accurate as possible.

However it has its critics. Some say the census is too intrusive but there aren't really any questions you'd get offended about and I actually think there are more questions that could be asked.

It's also estimated this year's census is costing about £480 million but being as this is a study of every citizen that is used for so many purposes, isn't it worth that cost? Maybe there are other ways of finding this information, but how welcome the alternatives would be I don't know.

Linking it all together

We could, for example, link all the government's databases together. They already know who we are and how much we earn through birth records, National Insurance and tax records, they know if and what we drive through the DVLA, if we have a passport, which NHS services we've used (and, in turn, providing a Summary Care Record for emergency use), our eligibility to vote, if we have a TV licence or not an if we've been branded a criminal or not. Heck, why don't we all willingly register our DNA on to the database too to help fight crime?

Anything you haven't already told the government about, you've probably already put on Facebook anyway.

It'd take some time but surely with some effort all of these separate databases could be linked together. It would also make it easier for us citizens to see exactly what the government holds about us by offering a public interface where we could log in and see it, even update it if circumstances change or details are wrong. Every five to ten years a smaller, supplemental survey could be conducted to keep things all up to date.

Maybe they could give us something in return - an easy to carry plastic card with a summary of our details on, perhaps?

Historical value of census data

Twenty years ago, on Sunday 21st April 1991, I remember sitting on the living room floor with my mum and dad filling in the census return on the coffee table. This was my first census and over the past ten years I've found out just how useful and insightful censuses are.

As someone keen on tracing my family history, census data is the best way of getting started on tracing branches of the family tree for ancestors living between 1841 and 1911. On one sheet of paper you get to know who your ancestor was, the people around them and an idea of how they lived.

You see a family together in one year, but then ten years down the line someone's missing and you ask yourself questions. Where are the children? Where did the father go? Why have they moved house?

What will future generations think of us when, 100 years from now, they read through today's census returns? How will things have changed by then? Perhaps the thought of a national census will be completely alien to them, given that it's speculated the 2011 census will be the UK's last.

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