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New ways of counting leave U.S. Census behind

India’s census, the biggest ever in the world, could mark a move toward real-time database-driven counting that leaves the U.S. far behind. An special report.
Image: An Integrated Child Development Service staff member sits on a bicycle as she returns home with the documents she need for her role as census-taker at Halisahar village
A woman is bicycled home with documents for her role as a census taker in Halisahar, India, near Calcutta. India’s yearlong census is photographing and fingerprinting every resident over the age of 15 to create a national database.Piyal Adhikary / EPA
/ Source: and CNBC

Duplicated forms, missed neighborhoods, ideological boycotts, underreported ethnic groups — is there a better way to keep track of the population than the decennial census? Many other countries think so.

Last week, India began taking the largest census in history, sending about 2.5 million canvassers to every one of the country’s estimated 221 million households. The mammoth operation — the 15th in the country’s history — is a traditional door-to-door census, but it marks the turning of a page in population counting, one that illustrates how far behind the United States really is.

In addition to the usual information — names, ages, education levels, housing conditions and the like — the Indian government is collecting photographs and fingerprints of all residents over 15 years of age. Those data will be used to help create an enormous database of India’s people that will give government decision makers real-time metrics with which to target benefits and services, improve planning and strengthen national security, the national census commission says.

With 1.2 billion people to account for, the operation is “one of the biggest projects happening in the world anywhere,” said Nandan M. Nilekani, chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, which is responsible for issuing every Indian resident over 15 an official ID number, so all that information can accurately be tracked across hundreds of local, state and federal agencies.

Besides streamlining government operations, the economic savings “will be fairly substantial,” said Nilekani, a technology entrepreneur. To take on the project, Nilekani left Infosys Technologies Ltd., where his stewardship inspired Thomas L. Friedman’s best-selling book “The World Is Flat” and landed him on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

In bureaucratic terms, the entire operation is moving at lightning speed, reflecting the urgency in the Internet age of finding ways to identify populations more efficiently than simply sending out thousands of government functionaries every 10 years.

Even though the program was launched just eight months ago, “we are very comfortable that we will issue the first set of (ID cards) before February 2011,” Nilekani said.

Old idea gets modern rebirthThe Indian census and identity card programs are separate by statute, but in practice they add up to a national population register — a way of keeping count in close to real time primarily through links among electronic databases. Indian officials said the programs would eventually pave the way for what is known in other countries as a register-based census: real-time population estimates based on administrative records.

The method, which is used in several Scandinavian countries, is in stark contrast to the way the United States and most European countries operate their censuses, which are snapshots compiled at set intervals.

The U.S. model is commonly considered to undercount certain populations, especially homeless residents and illegal immigrants, who are hard for government enumerators to locate. And especially this year, it has raised privacy concerns among many conservative activists and political leaders.

While the United States still sends out hundreds of millions of survey forms and dispatches thousands of government workers to figure out how many people there are in America, Iceland eliminated such techniques in 1952 when it created the Thjodskra, or national population registry. Population data are generated from registration of births and deaths and tabulations of every time a person enters or leaves the country.

In one sprawling database, publicly searchable on the Statistics Iceland Web site, anyone can identify month by month, rather than decade by decade, exactly how many people are in the island nation (317,630 as of March 16) and who they are as described by dozens of demographic markers.

Censuses trend toward the electronic
Iceland is among a growing number of countries to rely totally on government registries to generate census data, while others compile so-called register-based rolling censuses — electronic population reports generated as needed, sometimes supplemented by limited field surveys to fill in gaps. Such methods are increasingly becoming “a primary source of population statistics,” the U.N. Statistics Division said.

The more a country’s census agency relies on data it already has, the less time, effort and money it has to spend on collecting surveys and on sending workers trudging door to door, the U.N. agency said. Up-to-date reports can be generated as needed, making them more useful across a spectrum of government operations, from budgeting to education to health care to welfare to the military.

Such methods can also be significantly more accurate than traditional survey-based censuses, U.N. statistical authorities say. Homeless residents and illegal immigrants can better be accounted for through extrapolation from other long-established statistical measures, such as social services, immigration and employment records.

For the first time, Germany will compile its 2011 census report primarily from government registers, making it one of about a dozen U.N. member states to have taken the plunge. The German census agency, Die Zensuskommission, said the change ensures “reliable results while involving low burdens for the people in Germany and ... minimum costs.”

Such concerns are “particularly important considering the huge resources invested in the census and the key role played by the census results,” said the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe, which is gearing up to coordinate sharing of data from national censuses scheduled across Europe next year.

‘Why have we been struggling ... to do this?’
The prospects that the United States might soon adopt a similar approach are slim. The U.S. Code, interpreting Article 1 of the Constitution, specifies that an actual headcount of all people in the United States must take place on or about April 1 of every 10th year.

One of the appeals for advocates of a real-time population database is the wide range of information it can put at the user’s fingertips — a prospect likely to alarm many conservative activists and political leaders who find even the 10 basic questions on the 2010 census form too intrusive.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., for example, created controversy last year when she said her family would not be filling out the form because it asked for too much information, while Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, was the lone no vote on a House resolution supporting the 2010 census, saying the government should ask just one question: “How many people live here?”

But others are warming to the idea of a centralized identification system, primarily as a way to get a handle on illegal immigration.

At a hearing last year on proposals to issue unique identification cards to all Americans, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, endorsed Nilekani’s program in India.

“They are taking on a humongous scale something that we have been struggling with for 20 years,” Cornyn said. “Why is it that we’ve been struggling for 20 years to do this?”