Census: on paper, by governments, is still best

University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland.

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University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland.

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We agree that hard-copy censuses are crucial to public-health surveys in developing economies (see Nature 574, 296; 2019). In our view, they should be continued and not replaced by online ‘big data’ collection. Furthermore, your suggestion that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — as opposed to governments — could carry out censuses would pose several risks.

For example, NGOs would be unlikely to guarantee country-level coverage, uniformity in data collection, periodicity or commitment to conservation and oversight of data access. That could seriously impair the availability, quality, long-term observability and accessibility of complete national data sets. Collection of data online only is a limiting factor, especially for the most disadvantaged segments of the population. Although electronic gathering aided by collectors might improve coverage, it could also breach rights to privacy.

More frequent sampling, as envisaged by some countries, would require data sets to be catalogued year on year for comparative purposes, raising the possibility of missed or double-counted entries.

We urge caution. All too often, governments are willing to renege on their responsibilities to citizens — particularly if NGOs are poised to meet the challenge. The work of Roy Burstein and his colleagues in tracking child mortality (Nature 574, 353–358; 2019) would not have been possible without the granularity of household-level census returns.

Nature 577, 170 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00004-9

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