So what did you think of the 2013 Census?

, posted: 6-Mar-2013 09:07

Our household did it online and I have to say it was a smooth and easy process. The questions we didn’t have to answer were grayed out and we were all done and dusted in no time. Hopefully this means that finally we can hold referendums and vote online in future.

However, to me it was a major missed opportunity to learn more about who Kiwis are, what they do and where. This seemed to be to be simply a modern version of the feudal system where nobility tried to establish how much tax they could claim from their citizens. I love the Census system, always used to use copies of the books the Statistics Department used to put out and have been a keen user of the tables and tool builders on the website over more recent years. This Big Data has a huge impact on where to do business, where to build shops and factories, schools etc and the potential to not require costly double ups of data collection as will remain necessary for many Government organisations.

Here are a few thoughts from me of things that I would have liked to know and would have been easy to include and a few comments on what was included:

Ethnicity. For a country that is so multi-ethnic there were only 8 ethnicities offered and one of them was New Zealand European. That effectively makes it a political question and one that does not allow qualitative or quantitative research. As anyone who has studied statistics knows, most European Caucasians will  select the first option, leaving us with skewed data. How about culture. I know people who will register as Chinese because they look like their ancestors, but were born and raised in New Zealand and in most things they do other than appearance are indistinguishable from any other NZ born person. On the other hand there are people who totally live the culture of their family and do not integrate much with our everyday society.

The question on what languages you can have a conversation in, was easy for people who really don’t speak English, to say they do. This to me is important because we know there are now large numbers of people who will struggle to answer a question like “where is the nearest dairy?” in English.

What is your religion? This to me is very old school. You either belong to a sect or you have no religion. What if you are agnostic, spiritual but don’t belong to a particular church? This would effectively assume that if you have no religion, you do not believe in a higher spirit, God if you will.

I would have liked to know what people’s jobs are. As a futurist, I’m aware that many of today’s roles or job titles didn’t exist 20 years ago and it would be very interesting to be able to identify shifts in trends in employment. Yes, this information is available to IRD, but I want to know these answers and you could argue the same about the table which asks about personal annual income.

The employment questions also didn’t support all options. For example, I am a founder in a couple of start-ups. I am not an employee and I do not draw any money from the companies. I work very long hours in them. But I couldn’t answer the how many hours do you work in your job, because I’m not employed by the companies. These are not family businesses or family farms, although we do have a project creating virtual pets. Because I don’t have a ‘job’ all the options below these questions were grayed out. I was left with the questions of did I apply for a job and if so, how. BTW I also do not get any sort of benefit from the Government.

The only questions on health focused on disabilities that stop you from earning money or require a benefit. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to get more information on conditions such as asthma, diabetes, ADHD, Autism, Cancer etc. where people continue to work or study. Not so much from a single point in time but from a trend perspective. Tie this into geospatial mesh blocks and area units and some very interesting information might have emerged. What about depression and mental health? If we were able to see statistics based on location, what discoveries might that lead to? Perhaps ones that Government doesn’t want to reveal?

They asked how many cars were available to the household, not how old they were, how often they were used, how big the engines were, whether they were NZ new? Yes, again I know this information is collected by other Government agencies, but it is not made available to the public and business in the same way.

Question 32 would have appealed to teachers. In the last 7 days did you work for pay, profit or income for an hour or more. Novopay anyone? How many people worked but haven’t been paid? Many have waited much more than a week, I’ve heard of people who still have pay overdue for months! (No I am not a teacher).

What else would I like to know?
  • Do you have a land-line (that has dial tone)? Because in the event of power outages like earthquakes, they often still work.
  • Do you have a broadband connection? VOIP?
  • How many computers do you have at home that can access the internet?
  • How many mobiles do you have in the household that are connected? How many of those are Smartphones?
  • How many hours a week do you spend: Playing Sport or other outdoor activities? In club or organised activities? Watching TV? Playing computer games? On social media?
  • Do you BYOD to work and use it for work purposes?
  • How often do you buy fast food or eat out?
  • What about savings? What do people do with their money? Are they part of a super scheme like Kiwi Saver? Do they buy stocks (Mighty River Power would like to know)? What was the last big purchase in the last 12 months?
  • How about leisure, do they go away for a holiday? In NZ or overseas? Can they afford one at all? How long for?
There are many more questions that could have been asked like, how easy was it to complete this online? Would you be happy to vote in the next elections online?

So in summing up, its great to finally have a Census again and I’m looking forward to finding out what has changed in New Zealand, particularly as a result of the Canterbury earthquakes, but also information like how many NZ born people have left the country permanently, what is the make up of this country today compared to the last Census.

Congratulations on what appeared to be a smooth online operation, but what a missed opportunity to get some more learning. I think there has been so much focus on finally getting the job done, that there was insufficient focus on getting some highly important and valuable new data. The world has changed so much in 5 years. It appears like Novopay, that not much else has when it comes to taking advantage of 21st Century technology.

What do you think?

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Comment by TheBug, on 6-Mar-2013 10:50

Do you not worry about privacy at all? Pretty much every one of the questions was an unnecessary, forced intrusion into my life by the Department of Statistics.

Yes, it could be that the information is used by "Businesses, Iwi etc etc" but if they want it then they should go out and ask for it voluntarily - rather than forcing the taxpayer to stump up the cash for it and force them to participate.

Comment by jonb, on 6-Mar-2013 10:58

I filled in the paper form in the end, but agree it seemed it quite 'short'.  I remember the UK one being much more detailed.

There was a job title field though, and what Industry it is in. I wrote mine as 'Senior Test Analyst', one of those job titles that means both everything and nothing.

Comment by nickb800, on 6-Mar-2013 13:32

Just a few thoughts:
1) Health is pretty well covered by a sample-type survey, the NZ Health Survey administered by the Ministry of Health
2) There's an active area of research in GeoHealth (for instance a lab at Canterbury Uni funded by MoH specifically looking at spatial patterns in health). In regards to health inequalities, there's some very ugly conclusions as you might imagine
3) Time spent doing X is covered by a sample-type survey, the Time Use Survey administered by StatsNZ which gets a bunch of people to fill out time diaries
4) The data from these specialist surveys is typically hard to get hold of on account of privacy issues (so it should be) but generally researchers with legitimate purpose can use it after jumping through the appropriate hoops
5) I think the general focus of the Census is to keep it as simple as possible, and for more specific questions they use the aforementioned types of specific survey on a small sample. Provided they ask the same Census-type questions with these specific surveys, then they can verify that the samples are representative of the population, or if not, equivalise the data so that it is.

Comment by GregV, on 6-Mar-2013 14:27

On a more operational level, it would have been nice for some information to be carried across to the other 'blue' forms, once I had completed mine.  We ended up typing the same information for current address, how long in the house, previous address etc for every member of our family.  I reaslise that this wouldn't be the case for everyone, but it would be nice to see it as an option.

Otherwise, the system worked well.  We were on at about 5,30pm last night, with no technical issues at all.

Comment by Andrew, on 6-Mar-2013 15:00

Yes. You hit the nail on the head. So much more could have been found out about people to help plan for other than taxing people. Agree the online feature was great. Happy not to use paper forms.

Author's note by PDAMan, on 6-Mar-2013 15:44

@The Bug, all of the information in Census is fudged so that you can't find any individual people. If there was a German Muslim Family with 5 children and 15 cars (being extreme) living in Johnsonville, you wouldn't find them. It is designed to provide trend information. This could be useful for you if you were looking at moving to an area you weren't familiar with, or if you were considering opening a store or perhaps a motor mechanics business for example, in a particular area. If you knew there was an area that had a high percentage of people driving cars, you could see if there were many potential competitors in the area using a mapping solution such as Google Maps and make quality decisions, without invading anyone's privacy. 

@Nickb800 Yes there is a wealth of information guarded by MOH, MOE etc as you pointed out, but a lot of it is valuable to the public and not easily accessible. Stats is. If you are a business and have BA's not a problem, if you are a SME or considering becoming one, that becomes too hard. 

For those that think it is an intrusion on your privacy, you're entitled to your opinion, but I also recommend that you have a look at the free services that are provided by the Stats Department from the Census. At some stage you might want to move house and be interested in things like what sort of people live in the neighbourhood you are considering, is it easy for them to find work, are they people that are similar to you? Without this information it is very difficult for your Government to provide the services you expect for your taxes. Take the earthquake for example, MOE has to figure out what the trends are, where to put schools or add teaching resources for children whose parents have decided they want to live somewhere 'safer'. Just an example.

Comment by wasabi2k, on 6-Mar-2013 15:57

The census has a specific purpose and scope - which is fairly obvious from the content of the questions. 

Sure it would be nice to know all those things you asked but there are a number of problems.

1. Yours are largely tech focused - sure, but how do they rate in importance with other questions, e.g. Health etc?
2. Regarding 1. What gets included? which leads to...
3. Length - the longer the questionnaire the more likely people are to either ignore it or lie/fill in rubbish answers.
4. Privacy - as has already been mentioned. While most people are happy giving all the details of their lives to facebook (who knows why) there needs to be a damn good, well explained reason for me to advise the government how much money I have saved, what I do with my free time.

At the end of the day the census aims to get a response for EVERY SINGLE NEW ZEALANDER. At the same time it will have a budget. While information on BYOD is interesting, for whom does it actually create an economic benefit? Are they willing to pay for collecting this information?

Timely, Broad, Cost effective - choose 2.

As has been mentioned there are far more effective statistical methods for gathering data from samples for specific issues.

Comment by jnawk, on 6-Mar-2013 19:50

I object to a lot of the questions.  Do I have an internet connection? Ask my ISP!  What religion am I?  Who cares?  Do I have a car?  Query the Motor Vehicle Register!  Do I pay a mortgage?  Ask my bank! How much do I earn?  Ask the IRD! 

All that is ignoring the fact that I consider all that data to be private in any case! 

We can't forget this one: what is my ethnicity?  I'm a New Zealander, but apparently there is no such ethnicity, though if you read their own definition, 'New Zealander' in a lot of ways (and for some of us, all) actually qualifies.  Why isn't it included?


Comment by silverbirch, on 6-Mar-2013 19:56

To me it seemed simply as though they are gathering data, much of it retrospective, and I don't see how it will help in planning for the future - which is one of the claims made for conducting a census.  Fro example - it was predictable that there would be a need for hospital beds as the baby boomers aged, but has that been addressed?

Comment by Geektastic, on 7-Mar-2013 10:07

I find all such matters an invasion of privacy (as I do registering to vote, for example,, where my right to vote arises from my citizenship not my presence or absence from a list).

I list my religion as Jedi Knight.

Comment by TheBug, on 7-Mar-2013 10:11


The examples that you give are fine - and I would expect businesses to do this sort of research before setting up ... but I would expect them to pay for it and not to force others to pay for it and force people to provide the information. There is a limit between what should be asked and what was asked (and what you want to be asked) and that limit is already breached.

For the census the government needs to know:
How many people live in an area
The approximate age of those people
How many people live in each house
The number of bedrooms in that house (for overcrowding).

And that is about it. The other information, like incomes and health, they can get from the IRD rather than forcing people to provide in an unsecure manner (and who knows how secure their systems are if they can end up with people being delivered already completed forms).

They don't need to know which houses are overcrowded, or the names and exact dates of birth of people living in a house. They really don't need to know religious beliefs or ethnicity. And what their job titles are is totally irrelevant to anybody.

There are better and more accurate ways of getting data on public transport use, car use etc.

Perhaps they should have a two section census; one with the bare minimum that people should provide and one with additional information from them - the sale of which (in anonymised format) funds the census. As it is they got what I saw as the bare minimum from me and either lies or, where text input was available" a "none of your business".

Comment by Linuxluver, on 7-Mar-2013 13:15

Some governments don't really want to know much. Evidence would mean their ideological arbitrary policies might be contestable based on verifiable reality. If you don't gather the information, then you can't be contested. 

I don't care which stripe you may think this applies to. If you agree in any context then my point is valid. ;-)

Comment by nimbus, on 8-Mar-2013 08:43

Big Brother is watching! I personally find a lot of questions in the Census are a definite invasion of my privacy.

My friend also puts her religion as Jedi Knight.  Mine is nature Lover!

Author's note by PDAMan, on 8-Mar-2013 08:59

One of the things that worries me more is that we forget that WE ARE THE SYSTEM. Yes, it doesn't matter who you vote for, a politician will get in, however if you don't get active and voice your say in the mediums, including new media, then in my opinion you get the Government you deserve.

We live in a democracy, yet the majority of people in New Zealand probably don't even know who the deputy leader of the Labour Party is unless they live in his Wellington Central electorate. 

Too many people talk about the Government as if it is the enemy. They do what people let them do. 

Sorry, if you see my latest blog, you'll understand that I had an early start to the day and I'm tired:) Have an awesome day and I really appreciate the comments and debate.

Comment by TheBug, on 8-Mar-2013 09:44


Government is the enemy; and the deputy leader of the Labour Party is irrelevant. And they don't do what people want them to do - they promise the earth in order to get their power fix and then carry on doing exactly what every other government has done - take more and more rights and powers away from the citizenry and continue to pass a myriad of laws to control them.

Which is fine when they stay in Wellington and we only have to pay for them - but when they start to infringe on people who are simply trying to live their lives it gets very annoying.

And there is no point in voting as everyone who actively wants power over others is not worth the ink.

Comment by gracefool, on 12-Mar-2013 22:00

I had problems filling it out online. I started filling it out, left it for 10 minutes and came back to finish it. Then when I finished it said it had logged me out for 60 minutes inactivity (actually from start to finish took me less than 30 minutes). So I had to do it all over again. The same thing happened to my flatmate. Fail.

Comment by c3rn, on 27-Mar-2013 16:17

Very simple! Both the individual and dwelling from done in about 10-15mins!

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Luigi Cappel
New Zealand

Helping people getting their message to potential customers with blogs and social media.
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