The Economic Commission for Africa is helping Africa move to digital censuses

By Garnett Compton

Technology is playing a major role in the 2020 round of African Censuses with over 50 percent of countries planning to conduct a digital census according to an assessment conducted by UNECA.  Moving digital sounds simple, simply replace the recording of information on the census questionnaire from paper to an electronic device – like a tablet. 

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.

Why go digital, what is the benefit to countries and their census?  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 aren’t that obvious.  For example, in Ethiopia there will be about 180,000 enumerators to conduct the census, each needing a tablet – that’s a lot of tablets.  And each enumerator needs a unique package of software to support their work in a specific location – namely a map of the area.   So getting each tablet ready and to the right enumerator is a logistical challenge – taking it out of the box, charging it, loading unique software onto it, repacking in its case, and getting it in the correct box to be delivered to the correct area.   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 center 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 HQ can spot and resolve problems quickly likely 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 utilize their experience in this field to help countries set appropriate performance indicators and actions to resolve issues. 

Given their experience in Ethiopia, ACS recognized 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 150k tables 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 organized 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.  ACS is committed to supporting countries to undertake successful censuses – digital or not - through the examples noted earlier or advising on other aspects such as questionnaire development, advocacy or resource mobilization.  Working with their ONS partners, a key plank of ACS support will be focused on enhancing the use of technology in censuses, striving to ensure that census results are of better quality, and available earlier to improve our understanding of the population of Africa – after all isn’t that why we do a census?

Garnett Compton is ONS (UK) Strategic Advisor to the ECA’s African Centre for Statistics