Thursday 19 September 2019

Thomas Molloy: Mine of web information puts new power into all our hands

Deirdre Cullen and Padraig Dalton, from the Central Statistics Office, at the launch of the Census 2011 results.
Deirdre Cullen and Padraig Dalton, from the Central Statistics Office, at the launch of the Census 2011 results.

A DECADE ago, only the very rich and powerful could buy satellite pictures if they needed to view any part of the world from space. Today, any of us can use Google Earth to get the same service for free.

Yesterday, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) unveiled a new website that has the same potential to change the way we understand our surroundings.

The CSO's website promptly crashed but that small glitch will be forgotten as the site pays dividends for years. The site uses programmes developed by NUI Maynooth and information from last year's census to build up incredibly detailed pictures of every neighbourhood and a treasure trove of information on almost all of the country's 3,440 electoral wards.

If you enjoy looking at your home from space, you will almost certainly get the same kick from clicking on your area to discover the population increase in your parish or the number of vacant buildings.

There is something eerie about letting the cursor hover above the CSO's detailed maps, before clicking on an area the size of a few streets and mining the site for data.

There was a time when this sort of information had to be gathered carefully by expensive market-research companies.

Effectively, this meant that only the rich and powerful could understand what was happening. Now, the rest of us can find out huge amounts of information that will allow for much more effective campaigns against big business and bad government decisions.

Suddenly, it will be easy to prove that a new school should not be built in a minister's constituency because there are far more children living 20 miles away. Suddenly, it will be easy to prove that people living in one city district have been neglected in favour of another.

Information has always been power. Now ordinary people have copious information that will help anybody campaigning for resources, anybody who wants to set up a business or anybody who is curious about their surroundings.

However, the figures come with some caveats. The CSO has been careful to protect the confidential answers given by households, which means that information from 32 tiny electoral wards have been amalgamated to ensure confidentiality.

The information is also limited for smaller areas which have between 50 and 200 dwellings. Within these areas, you can only find out basic information, such as the number of males and females, the number of private houses, the number of unoccupied houses, holiday homes and the vacancy rate. This is interesting, but of limited practical use.

But the real boon is the information on electoral wards. At this level it is possible to find out the population size, marital status, religious beliefs, social class and educational levels, as well as information about housing, household formation and transport habits.

Many people will be curious to know which electoral districts are the richest, best educated, least religious or have the most vacant houses.

But information this rich can be mined for many useful facts as well. House hunters will quickly be able to create a detailed picture of an electoral ward when they consider moving.

CAMPAIGNERS looking for public transport will be able to demonstrate that provision in other areas works well. Policymakers will be able to determine whether campaigns to encourage cycling and or buses are working.

Businesses will be able to decide where to locate new shops. Starbucks uses information like this to open its coffee shops in a country's wealthiest districts or where there are college students.

That sort of information has allowed it to create a coffee empire but charities could follow suit when deciding where to locate a new soup kitchen, while a trade unions could crunch the figures to determine where a new branch is needed.

Yesterday's pile of raw data is only the first of a dozen publications that are expected to be published by the CSO in the years ahead.

By the time the CSO has finished and we have learnt how to process the information properly, everybody with a computer and the internet will have access to a veritable mine of knowledge that paints the most detailed picture ever created of our country.

A thousand years ago, William the Conqueror drew up a detailed list of every parish in England. It became known as the Doomsday Book.

Six hundred years later, the economist and philosopher William Petty drew a series of maps for Ireland that did something similar.

Yesterday, the CSO unveiled a digital equivalent that gives ordinary people information that was once only available to elites or often nobody at all.

It is a good day for Ireland.

Census data website

Irish Independent

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