Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Census Night

Tonight was Census Night in New Zealand, the time where every person in the country is counted. Well, it used to be that way—things are a little more evolved now.

I remember the first NZ Census I was part of, back in 1996. It was on paper, and everyone was to complete those forms on Census Night. I thought it was fun (yeah, yeah, I’m weird; move on).

By 2006, Kiwis could fill out the Census online (we didn’t). The next Census was meant to be in 2011, but it was cancelled due to the February earthquake in Canterbury. While I thought postponing was prudent, I didn’t think cancelling it completely was justified.

So, here we are in 2013 with the five yearly Census back on track. This year, we completed our forms online. It was fast, easy and, yes, even more fun for me (we’ve established I’m weird—can we move on?). Kudos to the folks who put the website together!

There were some oddities this year. The form asked if the address we have was the same one we lived at in 2008, five years ago. Normally, it would ask about the previous Census (2006), which would be seven years ago, so they just stuck with the same time frame—but we lost two years!

One of the most interesting questions on the Individual Form (blue, in the photo above) was on religion. There’s speculation that New Zealand may be about to become the first Western country to have a majority of its population defining itself as having “no religion”. This is the option I chose (as illustrated), not for political reasons (something I don’t support doing), but because it’s true. Oddly, my first census answer wasn’t motivated by a desire to be so accurate.

Back in 1996, I said my religion was “Lutheran”, partly because I knew there weren’t many in New Zealand, but also because it was part of my historic identity. Still, inaccurate as this may have been, I was like a lot of Kiwis: Claiming to be Christian when I never, ever, went to any church.

Now, 17 years later, I absolutely have no religion, and said so tonight. I haven’t been in a Lutheran Church in the better part of 25 years, and in other churches only for weddings and funerals, and few of them.

Back in 1996, I answered another question in a novel way: I said my ethnicity was “American”. While on US Census forms I’d talked about my coat of many colours ethnicity, I realised that here in New Zealand none of that mattered: I was just an American. I’ve chosen that as my ethnicity in every NZ census ever since.

I find the Census fun not just because I’m a statistics and demographics geek, but also because it’s the one time we regular people are counted and considered when making a snapshot of the mosaic that is New Zealand on Census Night—it’s the night we count. Sure, the resulting statistics are used to determine things like where government will spend money and on what, but for me the real selling point is that it let’s us look at the nation as it is, not just as we imagine it to be.

Well, that, and I like it because I’m weird.


Roger Green said...

You ARE a geek!

Interesting that the US has allowed multiple races in their reportage since 2000. Theoretically, I could pick white and American Indian, but don't for historic reasons.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Yes, I am a Geek, Mr. fellow Pew Research 8%-er…

I didn't talk about it in the post, but race/ethnicity is one of the most complained about questions on NZ Census forms. The particular sticking point is that one of the options is "New Zealand European", meaning white people. Many argue that they're definitely not "European" so the name is offensive. I have sympathy with their position, and think that there must be a better term. After all, the US Census is finally dropping the word "Negro", so change is possible, even for demographers and statisticians.

Jason Peaco said...

Yes the US Census has gotten better on the way race/ethnicity is listed. I wonder if they'll ever conduct one on-line. I can only imagine to the reaction of that here.

On another note about race/ethnicity listings, I belong to a couple of on-line survey organizations. They have surveys about all sorts of issues. In the statistical part of the survey, they of course ask you your race. What drives me nuts is many times White is listed first. Then the other races in alphabetical order. What gives with that.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

To be honest, when I was doing the online form, I did think to myself that the US could NEVER go online—not with so many people who think the census is some sort of evil plot.

That's interesting about White being listed first. I wonder if there's some sort of form-filling psychology at work, or it it's just unrecognised bias. I'd LOVE to see some academic research on that.

Roger Green said...

I can tell you that Census IS testing an online Census. Census tests EVERYTHING before they do things. So they might pick a geography in 2016, get people to respond, compare not only the response rate but whether the answers appear consistent with the trendlines they had been seeing, and of course, try to address any hacking problems. It COULD happen in 2020, but it's not a done deal. For one thing, Congress often cuts intracensus budgets, wrongly believing they only need money decennially.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Interesting! I have to admit my scepticism is more about the amount of paranoia in the US than whether it's feasible. The first online census in NZ was apparently in 2006 (I don't think I was even aware of it), but interest is definitely growing.