No question, tailored online census will cast wider net

The avalanche of census data due to hit us on Thursday is just a taste of what's to come.

Until now, each Australian has been asked the same set of questions on the 18-page form which has been hand-delivered to each of Australia's 8.5 million households.

Brian Pink from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Brian Pink from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Photo: Andrew Meares

Next time, in 2016, there won't be a form at all unless someone rings and asks for one. All that will be delivered is a letter - by post - including login details and a password. The success of the 2011 electronic lodgement campaign in which 30 per cent of households went online has persuaded the Bureau of Statistics to go for a ''big bang'' and abandon face-to-face contact.

The savings will amount to $100 million of the $454 million it costs to run each census. Initially the savings will be used to beef up the technology. By 2021, the survey will be barely recognisable. Individually tailored questions will be added to the core questions asked for 100 years.

''Until now, the census has been the most expensive real estate in Australia. To get an extra question on the form has been bloody difficult because most of it has had to repeat the questions asked in previous surveys,'' Australian statistician Brian Pink said.

''But once it becomes predominantly an electronic instrument, we won't have to ask the same questions to every person in the population. For instance, special questions can pop up for people who are disabled. We can reach every disabled person in the country.

''You take people with school kids, OK? Transport planners have been on to us for years about journeys to school. We ask about journeys to work, but we haven't been able to ask about school because it would take half a page. With the electronic survey, if you have children of school age you will be asked those questions … We might ask extra questions to people who have recently arrived in Australia. It forced my team to start testing each other - to say 'hey, what about this'. We don't yet know the limits to what's possible.''

One limit will be fatigue. But Mr Pink says the bureau has discovered Australians stay happier for longer answering questions online.

''In both 2006 and 2011, people said it was much faster online. But our testing shows the time taken was about the same. What was happening was that people were taking more care with the answers - we know this from the quality of the answers.''

The online census will probably ask 25 common questions and another 10 to 20 special questions. For the first time some of the information will be provided by third parties.

''In their last two censuses, Canada has given people the option of consenting to the tax office providing their income data so they don't have to. Around 85 per cent have said yes. We will have that capability if our tax office agrees.

''When you get that, the data becomes much more richer. To date, the census has been a blunt instrument, we haven't been able to ask too much.

''Tax information will tell us about income from rents, investment and all sorts of other things sorted by the type of household. And we will get it by being less intrusive.''