How technology has changed the Census

It may only come round once every decade but it remains the nation’s favourite quiz. You’ll definitely be taking part and better still, you should know all the answers.

Scanners like this one will be used to sift through the paper copies

Yes, as forms drop through letterboxes around the country ahead of Census day on March 27, we eye up free slots in our weekend to sit down for half an hour to tick boxes and write in our best block capitals.

The questions on the Census change as the decades go by. While it might have made sense to ask how many servants were in the household in 1901, it would be crazy to put that question in today… although when I get asked to put up more shelves by the other half on Saturday morning, I may beg to differ.

Now the way we fill in the Census has changed, too. For the first time you can complete your Census online instead of returning it by post. All you need is the code on the front of your paper copy to get started.

But just how many people are going to break with tradition and gather round their laptops rather than a booklet?

An Office for National Statistics (ONS) spokesperson told Dixons: “Experience of countries that have introduced online completion suggests around 25% might complete online.”

In an era where few of us would choose to write a letter over sending an email, it’s surprising just one in four households will complete their Census online. Has technology changed our habits less than we thought?

Computers have proven their worth to us by weeding out data duplication and hours of monotonous, minute detail. We fill in information once and leave the computer to do the rest.

The ONS believes completing the Census online makes life easier for us. Its spokesperson said: “Automatic routing will skip questions that do need to be answered, such as the occupation of a toddler, and some fields will be automatically completed such as names from the household section to the individual section.”

If you thought you had a sky-scraping stack of paperwork on your desk, imagine the poor fellows at the ONS with 25 million Census forms to analyse – one for each household in the country.

Imagine someone 100 years ago wading through manuscripts inked in indecipherable copperplate handwriting to compile the data. I don’t envy him.

Online entries will obviously make life for the ONS much easier, but even paper copies don’t cause them too much strife.

They will put to work 10 scanners taking digital images of the questionnaires, so around 22,500 forms can be scanned every day.

“Online completion removes the need to scan questionnaires and manually write in answers that have not been picked up by the handwriting recognition software,” the ONS spokesperson said. “This in turn reduces errors and improves the quality of the statistics.”

So even if you still prefer to scribble with your biro to tapping away on your keyboard, at least you won’t have a thousand paper cuts of a back office worker’s hands on your conscience…

Technology has changed so much of our lives it’s hardly surprising that this historical data collection process is moving with the times.

Perhaps when all the counting is done they’ll give us a statistical breakdown of which groups used the online method and which stuck with the traditional pen and paper. Tsk… Luddites.

How will you complete your Census form? If there is a 2021 Census, do you think it will be online-only? Comment below…