Censoring the census

It’s a slow month in politics when the current burning issue for the Canadian government is a form document that no-one enjoys completing.

The government is in trouble because of their plans to scrap the mandatory 40-page long version of the census. It would be replaced by a shorter, voluntary version. Opposition parties, statisticians, researchers, and other groups say this will result in unreliable data being collected.

The government argues it’s wrong to threaten fines and jail time for failing to fill out the census, and that the long form was too intrusive, with too many personal questions.

The government has a point. Look at some of the information required in the long form census:

  • the languages you speak at home
  • your race, nationality, and religion
  • where you work and how get there
  • the language you use on the job
  • how much housework you do
  • how much time you spend playing with your kids or talking to your parents
  • whether you have trouble walking, climbing stairs, or bending
  • who pays the rent or mortgage
  • how many rooms and bathrooms in your home
  • whether your home has any “missing or loose floor tiles,” “defective steps” or more major deficiencies like “defective plumbing”

Does the government really need all this information? Although it’s important for governments to plan for the future, I doubt all these excessive, personal details are really required. But that’s not my main complaint.

The real problem is that I don’t see why this document (either the long or short version) is even needed.

The entire system of mailing out a paper document to millions of people, having them mail it back, then having thousands of workers manually place the completed forms into a machine that can read them is nonsense.

I’m not suggesting that all this information should just be entered online. Aside from the fact that this assumes everyone has Internet access, this would still be a flawed process because:

  • it requires people to complete a form, which introduces errors
  • the data is only entered every few years, meaning it is never up-to-date

The real solution would be to glean the information on a continual basis in real-time from existing government databases. Everyone in Canada already has an ID number: a SIN, or Social Insurance Number. This number already contains much information about you. The government could use this information on a continual basis, in both short and long term planning.

Such a system would actively pull the required information, without forcing citizens to enter it, and would always be current. Yes, it would be an invasion of privacy, but so is the census itself. If you’re going to invade everyone’s privacy, you might as well do it cheaply and efficiently.

If the government ever created a system, they would simply be following the best practices of modern information management systems. In these systems, manuals are not just issued every few months when there is a release. They are continually updated, regenerated and then posted online. This allows the end user to always have access to the most current version.

It’s time to move all paper-based forms to the ash heap of history where they belong.

Census designers – I hate those guys…

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