Helping African countries move to digital censuses

September 16th, 2019, Published in Articles: PositionIT

Technology is playing a major role in the 2020 round of African Censuses with over 50% of countries planning to conduct a digital census according to an assessment conducted by the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). Moving digital sounds simple. However, it is far from simple as the introduction of technology brings with it many new challenges.  But the African Centre for Statistics (ACS) at UNECA, in partnership with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) UK, is working with countries to help them overcome these challenges.

Going digital has benefits: Firstly, there is a significant improvement in the quality of data. Collecting data about people and the houses they live in using a tablet with a structured questionnaire reduces interview error in collecting information – a common problem in paper-based interviews. Also, interviewers can have bad handwriting which makes it difficult to capture information accurately from a paper questionnaire – thereby reducing the quality of data and creating more work to correct the information. Secondly, using a digital data collection approach speeds up the amount of time it takes to clean, validate and tabulate the data before making the results widely available. Earlier results lead to earlier benefits from the data collected in the census.

Some of the biggest challenges are not that obvious. For example, in Ethiopia there will be about 180 000 enumerators to conduct the census, each needing a tablet – that is a lot of tablets. And each enumerator needs a map of their area. So getting each tablet ready and to the right enumerator is a logistical challenge. This is where ACS came into help and developed an app that would automatically load the correct software onto each tablet and ensure distribution to the right area. This significantly reduces the risk of error and reduces the amount of work (and hence cost) to load the tablets in readiness for the census. It also speeds up the process.

One of the biggest benefits is access to the data each day. As all of the data is collected and transferred electronically to a secure data centre every day, it is possible to get an early and detailed picture of the data collection operation. ACS is developing a dashboard of indicators which is updated frequently and informs census management of the progress and quality of the data collected. With this information, census headquarters can spot and resolve problems quickly – from issuing instructions to field staff to improve the way a question is asked, to deploying software fixes or even re-visiting some households if required. ECA is working closely with the ONS to utilise their experience in this field to help countries set appropriate performance indicators and actions to resolve issues.

Given their experience in Ethiopia, ACS recognised a need for greater support to assist countries with implementing a digital census. Again, working closely with the ONS, ACS assisted the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics with the automation of loading software onto each of the 150 000 tablets used in their census, held in August 2019; and has committed to further work with the Ghana Statistical Service (census in March 2020) and Seychelles (census in August 2020). As well as practical assistance, ACS has been enabling countries to share their experience in implementing a digital census. ACS, with ONS, recently organised and hosted an Expert Group Meeting on Electronic Data Collection and Dissemination in Censuses in Addis Ababa. The meeting, attended by over 40 participants from 17 countries, sought to share experiences between countries and create collaborations or partnerships between countries for further assistance.

Over 40 African countries are still to conduct their census as part of the 2020 census round, the majority of these being digital.

Contact Oliver Chinganya, UNECA African Centre for Statistics,

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