Population and social statistics in a rapidly changing world

Blackpool Tower lit up in purple

The response to the coronavirus pandemic has been driven by data. Never before have statistics been so crucial in informing decisions that affect us all. Here Pete Benton explains how the ONS will be maximising the value of the data collected from Census 2021 and how it aims to provide ever more timely statistics moving forwards.

The fantastic response to Census 2021 in March, with over 97% of households completing their census form, will be fundamental to our understanding of the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on different communities.

While data from the 2011 Census has already been crucial in our understanding of mortality for different groups during the pandemic, fresh data from Census 2021 will allow us to update our analysis and, alongside new administrative data sources, give us the richest data on our population we have ever had.

Over the next few months, there will be two key opportunities for stakeholders and users to engage with us, to shape how we will provide users of statistics with the insights that are needed for recovery from the pandemic, and plan for the future in line with our strategy ‘Statistics for the Public Good’.

Starting today, the Census 2021 outputs consultation will be looking at the detailed needs for data and analysis, to ensure the data produced helps to answer the most important questions facing our society. Most importantly, we want to hear from users on their need in topic areas that may be subject to rapid change since the latest census.

Later this year, we will launch a further major phase of engagement to inform our plans for our longer-term journey to a near real-time measurement of our population and communities that makes the best use of all available data. This will allow stakeholders to understand and inform the reasoning and opportunities behind our ambitions. It will also provide an opportunity for us to share the framework of evidence which will inform the recommendation that the National Statistician will make in 2023 on the future of the population and social statistics (including the role of any future census).

Informing the decisions of the future

Our current methodology relies on a census taken every ten years to provide the most accurate source of population data, both nationally and in small areas. However, traditionally census data reduces in value over the longer term as our circumstances change. The pandemic and Brexit have upped the rate of change still further.

Census 2021 will not only provide information on our population and our health – it will also shed light on social and economic changes to our lives. While it will provide us with new information that we will be able to use for years to come, we know that local authorities and stakeholders are keen to see more timely data to meet their needs.

For many of us, where and how we live, study and work is now quite different to what it was at the beginning of 2020. That is likely to change again. We will need to update the Census 2021 data using other sources to measure these and other changes to inform national and local service planning. For example, on commuting patterns where the census data on this will quickly become out of date as our working patterns continue to change.

As we have started  to use administrative data, and other new sources, in a more robust way we have been researching the ongoing utility of the census. The fundamental question that arises is whether it is possible for us to reshape the way we produce population and social statistics without the need for an ongoing national census taken every 10 years.

Our goal is to deliver more regular and more responsive statistics, particularly for small areas. The new approach would give an improved level of agility, adapting to reflect modern society, and how it changes in the future. It will also allow the production of alternative population measures such as daytime populations and monitoring of a wider and more responsive range of variables and characteristics.

Our programme of work to transform our population and social statistics for the future has already started. Building on the earlier research we carried out as part of the Admin data Census project , we have made use of alternative data sources to produce modelled estimates of migration for the period between March and June 2020. Our overview of progress on transforming population and migration statistics provides further detail. During 2020, we also published research on housing statistics using Valuation Office Agency data, including how we can provide information on property type, property floor space and estimates of overcrowding. Last month we published our latest set of experimental statistics on small area income distributions. Further updates on our research will follow on a regular basis.

What’s next?

The ambition of realising a near real-time and sustainable measurement of our population and communities will be a journey taking place over many years.

The National Statistician will make a recommendation to Government at the end of 2023 on what further change is needed to deliver fully transformed population and social statistics. This will include the role of any future census and, for example, necessary improvements in data collection or acquisition, methods and infrastructure.

It is vital everyone has their say to ensure that both the Census outputs plan and the future population and social statistics model meet user needs now and in the future. That begins today with the Census 2021 Outputs consultation and then later this year on the future. Regular engagement will continue so stakeholders have a chance to engage on the evidence that will ultimately inform the 2023 recommendation.

Pete Benton is Director of Population and Public Policy Operations at the ONS.