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Conducting a Census (Investigation)


Let's say that you have just been elected Prime Minister, or President (congratulations!), and you've decided you need good statistics about your country in order to run it better. You've decided to do a census, which involves getting information directly from every single member of the population. Have a go at the questions below to think about what sort of information you might want from your census, and how you would go about running it: 

What should you ask?

If you really were running the country, what kind of stuff do you think you need to know and why? Make a list of ten questions you would ask every Australian and how it would influence your decision making. 

Who should you ask?

As the government, which population are you interested in when you make decisions about how to run Australia? Is it just the Australian citizens? Or are permanent residents important too? What about other people from other countries who are only staying in Australia temporarily? Define your criteria for inclusion or exclusion in your census, and see if other students agree or disagree with you. 

Where should you ask?

This one seems pretty easy, right? Australia! But if you take a look at this website, and you might find that "Australia" is a bigger place than you knew. What do you do with all those territories and islands? 

How are you going to do it?

Now that you've figured out what you're going to ask, who you're going to ask it to and where you are going to ask it, you have to actually decide how you will ask those people. Do you call them? Make them come to a polling centre? Post it to them? Email it to them? Facebook them? Think about the pros and cons of each of the methods. 

Every method has a chance of not reaching certain groups of people. If these people are similar to the rest of Australia, then this is not too much of a problem. However, if the group of people who don't answer your census are different in some way, your results will become skewed by this bias. For example, if those who don't answer are poorer, less educated, or older, you will get results which falsely make Australia look richer, more educated and younger than it actually is. For the methods above, think about how they might skew the results of the census by missing out on important groups of people. 

How they did it

When you're done making your own census, compare your census with the real one: 

What they asked

The real census included questions on demographics, income, education, employment, religion, ancestry,  and languages spoken at home. The questions were carefully written to provide minimum ambiguity, with important points emphasised in italics to make sure they are not missed. Have a look here to see an example of a real census form. 

See if you can find five questions which you did not include in your list, and think about how the government might use this information. 

Who they asked

The real census involved everyone who was in Australia on the night of the census. Not just Australian citizens, or Australian permanent residents, or even those who were actually living in Australia at the time, but everyone who happened to be in Australia at the time, including temporary migrants (for example, international students) and visitors (for example, tourists). 

See if you can think of some reasons why the following groups of people were included in the census:

1. Permanent residents (non-citizens who have a right to reside in Australia permanently

2. International students (this article may help)

3. Tourists from overseas (this website may help)

Where they asked

The census covered all of Australia, including Antarctic and island territories.

Why do you think that they included these areas?

How they did it

The government sent out paper forms to every household in Australia, and also offered an online option, "eCensus". Delivering and collecting these paper forms for the 2011 census was a huge logistical operation, involving 14.2 million forms being delivered by 42000 form-deliverers. In total the census operation cost 325 million dollars, including 46 million dollars spent on printing the forms alone. The total number of pages printed for the census was 29750780882. For those who are curious, see if you can figure out how tall the stack of paper would be! This and this may help you. 

The future of the census

Despite all the effort of distributing via paper, one third of households used eCensus, the online method of completing a census. If the online method was so popular, why didn't the government just get rid of the paper forms and make everyone do it online? See if you can think of some reasons why they still use paper forms, and discuss amongst yourselves whether you think the government will stop using paper forms in the future. 

The great cost of a census means that they are only done once every five years. The complexity of collecting all the forms and entering the data into a computer also makes the process of calculating the data very slow, and as a result it took nearly a year for the 2011 census results to be released. Again, think about how advances in technology may change this situation. and how it might impact on the way that future censuses are run. 

One thing we can say for certain about the future of the census is that, so long as you don't leave the country, you'll end up being a part of one! 

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