Tuesday 25 October 2016

Paul Melia: Do you want your children to have a local school to attend? Do you want to take a bus to work? If so, fill out the Census form

Published 22/04/2016 | 02:30

Dorothea Findlater, who is 106 years of age, her grand-daughter Zanya Dahl and Zanya’s children, two-year-old Zya and one-year-old Lexi, at the launch of Census 2016 Photo: Tom Burke
Dorothea Findlater, who is 106 years of age, her grand-daughter Zanya Dahl and Zanya’s children, two-year-old Zya and one-year-old Lexi, at the launch of Census 2016 Photo: Tom Burke

For many people, the Census is just another tedious form to be filled out, a data-collecting exercise of little or no benefit to their daily lives.

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The State, they argue, already holds vast amounts of information about its citizens through income tax returns, local property tax payments, Irish Water bills and payments from the Department of Social Protection.

Could this data not be used to help plan essential public services?

Simply put, no. The Central Statistics Office (CSO) says the Census it is an essential tool to capture in real time how people live their lives, how they travel and about the homes they live in.

The information, collected every five years at a cost of €50m, is provided to State agencies employed to spend scarce public funds as effectively and efficiently as possible.

And in the coming months, the CSO will know the age, sex, religion and occupation of every person in the State on Census night.

They know where they live, with whom they share their home and whether they have moved house in the last year.

And when data from some two million forms is analysed, the CSO will also know the ethnicity of every person, whether they speak Irish or other languages and if they hold down a job.

But this isn't a case of Big Brother watching. Unlike high-tech internet companies which mine your personal data to sell to advertisers at a profit, this information is used to plan the provision of essential public services.

Want a school? Census data will show the number and age of children living in an area to determine if one is needed.

The stated religion of those children will help decide its ethos, whether it is Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, another religion or non-denominational.

Concerned about a lack of public transport? The Census analyses travel patterns to work, school or college, and captures whether buses, trains, Dart, Luas, bike, foot or the car is used as the primary mode of transport, allowing planners to see where investment is needed.

Government departments use information on educational attainment and employment to map the most deprived parts of the country, giving planners the information needed to deliver services.

The Housing Agency uses data on the average size of households to help shape policy around the needs of the future.

It all points to an over-riding need to complete those forms. And it's not an option - failure to complete the Census form can result in a fine of up to €44,400.

After Census 2011, five people were prosecuted, but the maximum fine imposed was €500.

Senior statistician with the CSO, Deirdre Cullen, says the Census is important because it provides a snapshot in time of how we live, down to a very granular level.

"It's the only source of data at small area level in Ireland," she says. "You can get broad regional data from other surveys, but in the Census there's more than 18,300 small areas, which are based on the number of dwellings, and not geography.

"They typically have 100 dwellings in them. In rural areas, they can be quite large, but can be just one apartment building in a city. It's that fine level of detail which allows organisations like Pobal record areas of greatest needs."

It's not just used to map deprivation, or in an attempt to rank counties against each other. It's about future-proofing and planning the type of public services we not only need today, but far into the future.

Given the extent of the housing crisis, planning the types of homes we build - and where we build them - is crucially important.

Ireland is prone to large migration flows, and between 2011 and 2016, around 720,000 people have immigrated into or emigrated out of Ireland.

A further one million people are estimated to have changed address over that five years, and capturing where they are moving to is crucial for long-term planning.

The questions around housing tell the Housing Agencies and other players where people are living, what kind of conditions they're living in, what kind of family sizes we have, and where vacant property is located.

Using population data, future growth and household sizes can be predicted.

In the 1970s, between four and five people typically inhabited the 'average' home. That's reduced to less than three, and the decline is expected to continue, as families become smaller and people choose to live alone.

That has profound implications, and without the Census information we could continue to build larger houses in our cities rather than smaller units or apartments. It ultimately means we may end up building housing types which will not meet future needs.

And apart from being an important source of socio-economic data, the Census also tells future generations about us.

The release of old Census returns from 1901 and 1911 by the National Archives has been hugely popular, and in 100 years' time, this Census will be published.

What a rich source of history that will be, telling the story of Ireland as it emerged from recession, the social impacts which ensued and how our population changed.

For those frustrated at the lack of a government, who may feel their vote was wasted in the General Election, the Census is one way to really make your voice heard.

Fill it out. It only takes half an hour. And it could make an enormous difference to whether your children have a local school, your elderly parents have the type of supports they need and if you can take the bus to work, instead of sitting in traffic gridlock.

Irish Independent

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