PHOTO: 2023 Census, Stats NZ

Why is the census important? – Expert Reaction

Census day is coming up, so how does filling out a form help researchers gain a better picture of Aotearoa?

Census Night is officially next Tuesday, so anyone in Aotearoa New Zealand that night needs to fill out a census form.

This year’s census will be extended for areas impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle.

The SMC asked experts to break down why census data are helpful for research purposes. Experts commented on the following topics:

1.) Rural communities
2.) Māori data governance
2.) An overview of what census data do
3.) Pacific communities
4.) Takatāpui and rainbow communities

Bill Kaye-Blake, Principal Economist, New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, comments:

“In the last Census, over 30% of people in some rural communities did not participate. At least, the government thinks that those people are there and did not complete their forms.

“These communities can be predicted. We developed a rural community resilience index based on Census data, and afterward found it had a 74% correlation with these low-participation locations. Unsurprisingly, these communities lack access to the internet and telecommunications. These communities also tend to have more people who identify as Māori and have more unemployment.

“The resilience index correlates closely with the New Zealand Deprivation Index. If we draw the link, the communities that aren’t counted are among the most deprived.

“Many of these poorly counted communities have been affected by Cyclone Gabrielle. If you are a disaster recovery manager deciding where to put resources, how do you make that decision? You do it partly on population counts and other information from the Census. Poor Census data can lead to poor disaster recovery, compounding the impact of deprivation.”

No conflict of interest

Professor Tahu Kukutai (Ngāti Tiipa), Te Ngira: Institute for Population Research, University of Waikato, comments:

“In most of the world’s countries the population census is the most important statistical exercise that governments undertake because it counts the entire population (or tries to) and captures information on where people live, and what their characteristics and circumstances are.

“In Aotearoa, there are many uses to which census data are put. Census data provides the benchmark for national, subnational and ethnic group population estimates that are used as the denominators for rates, such as fertility and mortality rates. Measured over time, these rates provide important insights into the ways in which Aotearoa is changing and whether life is getting better or worse for particular groups. Census data are used to inform decisions about the resourcing of national, regional and community services and infrastructure – schools, housing, hospitals, GP services, superannuation and roads are just a few examples. The census also captures information on the social and economic characteristics and conditions of local communities. Census Māori descent data is a key input into the formula used to determine the number of Māori electorates. So the census is constitutionally important. In short, the census is about more than counting people, it’s making people count.

“For all of these reasons it’s perhaps not surprising that the census can also be a flashpoint for political protest, both here and overseas. We don’t have to look too far back to see this. Before the 2006 census, for example, there was an email campaign calling on people to reject the ethnic categories on the census form and write in Kiwi or New Zealander. Most of those who did so were Pākehā. This year there seems to be a backlash building against the gender identity and sex at birth questions. Interestingly, in both of these instances, the protest seems to be coming from similar constituencies. That, in itself, is revealing.

“In the past, a census boycott would have seriously threatened the quality of the census dataset but much has changed since the 2018 census, which was a hard learned lesson for Stats NZ on what not to do!

“Since then Stats NZ has undertaken a lot of work on understanding how it can repurpose government administrative data, as well as old census data, to plug gaps in the census dataset. Indeed, Stats NZ has a goal to move towards a fully administrative census in the not-too-distant future, as some European countries have already done.

“In so doing, however, it is vital that Stats NZ has the trust and confidence of the Aotearoa public, and engages in robust public conversations to ensure that what they are doing is well understood by all of our communities, and that there is trust and confidence in their approach to reuse government data for census purposes. Just because you Can do something, doesn’t mean you Should.

“The Māori Data Sovereignty network Te Mana Raraunga and the National Iwi Chairs Forum Data Iwi Leadership Group have really been at the forefront of conversations about a lot of these challenging and sensitive issues. The collective view is that if we design a data ecosystem that works for Māori – who have historically had a low level of trust in government data collections (and for good reason!) – then that’s a system that will likely work for all of Aotearoa. The Māori data governance model that will be released very soon has been designed to improve the governance of Māori data held by government agencies, but is underpinned by values that will likely resonate with many others – like ‘Be accountable’ and ‘Nurture data as a taonga’.

“National statistics offices around the world are facing challenges with distrust, disinformation and declining response rates so it’s a good time to be thinking about new approaches – not ones that are imposed from ‘the top down’, but in the Aotearoa context at least, in partnership with Māori.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Tahu Kukutai was a member of the 2018 Census External Data Quality Panel, and a member of the Māori Data Sovereignty Network Te Mana Raraunga that published a series of statements about Stat NZ’s poor handling of the 2018 census. In recent years Tahu has provided technical advice to the National Iwi Chairs Forum Data Iwi Leadership Group.”

Dr Dawnelle Clyne, Research Fellow, Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland, comments:

“The data collected in the census provide a good overview of what life is like in Aotearoa New Zealand. It shows trends in how population dynamics have changed over time, which is important in knowing whether we are growing, shrinking, or not changing at all.

“My work focuses strongly on population wellbeing. For researchers like me, the census and other government surveys provide invaluable information that we use in our work which often goes on to influence policy and government decision making.

“For the wellbeing of society, the government will want to ensure that the national budget is distributed in an equitable way that brings the most value to the NZ population, especially to those with the greatest need. Without the census, it may be more difficult to tell where those needs exist – where welfare benefits need to change, where education needs to be funded, where healthcare services need to improve, and so on. The census not only influences decisions made by government, but its data is also used by iwi, other community groups, and local authorities in their planning and decision-making processes.

“This makes it so important that the census is filled out as accurately as possible – the more accurate the responses, the better for the wellbeing of the broader society. Inaccurate responses or forgoing filling out the census altogether could be a disservice to you, your whānau, and your communities as it can mean important areas are consequently underfunded.

“I have noticed some people may be hesitant about sharing their information with the government. When it comes to the security and confidentiality of your data, I can say from my experience that Stats NZ has great systems and procedures in place to safeguard your information and that access to that data is strongly regulated.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Richard Arnold, Professor of Statistics and Data Science, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“A census is a special type of survey: one when everyone in the whole population is counted, and we find out their individual characteristics.

“For large groups within the population, a random sample is enough to find out what we want to know: for political opinion polling samples are typically just 1000 people, but that’s good enough to find out the support for the major political parties.

“But for small groups in the population 1000 survey respondents, or even 100,000, is way too small.

“The census finds out how the population is spread across the country – every part of it, even the thinly populated rural areas.

“And in our democracy, knowing where people are is the only way to know how to draw the boundaries of the electorates.

“The census finds out about small groups such as older people, people with disabilities, smaller ethnic groups, and so on. Absolutely no one is missed.

“And that’s the reason why it’s so important that everyone responds: people who aren’t in the census aren’t counted.

“The census is used everywhere: it’s the backbone of government planning. It allows local and national government to plan for services – health, education, transport, electricity etc.

“The census allows businesses to know where their customers are.

“The data from the census allows researchers to interpret their findings. If we have a sample of, say, problem gamblers, we don’t know if they are older or younger in general than the rest of the population – unless we know that the general population is like.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I worked at Statistics NZ 1999-2001 as a mathematical statistician.”

Jesse Whitehead, Senior Research Fellow, Te Ngira: Institute for Population Research, University of Waikato, comments:

“The census is a really fundamental and hugely valuable dataset that many people, community organisations and institutions rely on. The census provides information that we don’t have anywhere else, and is important for analysing trends over time, because usually the same questions are asked in the same way at each census. If we compare that to some of the administrative datasets, you see that there are often big differences in the ways that questions are asked – often by different organisations – and the reasons that data is collected, and this can complicate some analysis.

“The census is very useful for research, especially research about people, and a large amount of the work I do uses census data – either directly or indirectly. For example:

  • We often use data from the census to develop other useful datasets. Our recently developed Geographic Classification for Health uses population data from the census to classify areas of Aotearoa as rural or urban. This information is very useful for health researchers as well as those working in the health system and can help us to identify rural-urban differences in health outcomes, and areas that may require more funding or services.
  • Further to this, it is important to know the size and characteristics of communities around the motu when researching access to health services, and how we might provide better services around the country.
  • Census data can also inform us about some of the characteristics of thriving regions and communities, and how these change over time. For instance, by asking “How has the number and proportion of Te Reo Māori speakers increased over time? Which communities are more connected through volunteer activities? What are the other strengths of these places, and where could they use more support?”

“The census is really useful for government organisations or agencies for planning infrastructure. For instance, looking at the distribution of services and resources, and how this might match population needs. Organisations can better plan future health services using population data and trends over time to project what future needs might be for different communities.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Polly Atatoa Carr, Te Ngira Institute for Population Research, University of Waikato, comments:

“As a member of the Pacific Data Sovereignty Committee, we are acutely aware of the importance of the census to provide detailed and high quality information about our communities. Without our communities being able to be counted in the census, then understandings of both the strengths of Pacific people (such as their language, and support structures within households) are incomplete. Furthermore, the provision of appropriate services (such as in health and education) for Pacific people, and for other diverse and often marginalised peoples in Aotearoa, requires a clear understanding of the size and complexity of our communities, where we live, and how systems need to change to meet our needs.

“We saw with the challenges of incomplete data in the 2018 census that there are no other data sources that can be used appropriately for this understanding of both strengths and gaps.

“Without a successful census, meeting our collective responsibilities towards population health gain, and equity of outcomes across out communities will not be achieved.”

Conflict of interest statement: “No conflict of interest. Member of the Pacific Data Sovereignty Committee.”

Dr Jaimie Veale, Senior Lecturer and Rutherford Discovery Fellow, University of Waikato, comments:

“It’s important that censuses to accurately reflect the demographics of the population, so people can see themselves represented in the results, so it’s great that this year’s census will collect data regarding sexuality, variations of sex characteristics or intersex people, and trans people, as well as asking about gender in a way that includes non-binary genders.

“Having a clearer understanding of our takatāpui and rainbow communities will be important for us to advocate for services to better meet the needs of these diverse communities.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I was on the advisory group for the StatsNZ Statistical Standard for Gender, Sex and Variations of Sex Characteristics.”