Digital Census: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


India is planning to conduct the next edition of its population census through the digital medium. Even though the move appears to be path-breaking, there are many caveats and concerns.

The world’s first census took place in 3800 BC. In a laborious exercise, the Babylonian Empire counted its people, livestock and commodities such as butter and honey. The process was pretty interesting and formidable. The empire employed a team of men who would roam around counting everything they came across in the kingdom. The data was collected and recorded on clay slabs. The empire’s main motive behind the census was to figure out how much food it would need for its people, but the data also gave the regime an idea about how many people were available for its military.

Historians were not able to recover the Babylonian census data or the clay slabs on which they were recorded. Some say the Babylonians destroyed the citizen records when they felt the mission was accomplished and didn’t want the private data to enter the wrong hands. In today’s parlance, they didn’t want the data to be hacked because even in those times access to data meant access to wealth and power. 

In India, the first census of the modern era took place in 1872. Ever since, every two decades, the country has been taking count of its people. This year marks the 16th edition of the decennial Indian Census and this time the mammoth population exercise will see a milestone moment: it will be India’s first digital census. 

According to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the Centre has earmarked Rs 3,768 crore for the next census. Home Minister Amit Shah last year had said the next census would be done via a mobile phone application and not through the traditional pen-and-paper mode. Shah had said the app would allow people to upload their details and the exercise would run in 16 languages at a total cost of Rs 12,000 crore.

Is this a first?

Yes, for India. Globally, several countries have experimented with electronic census or e-census. The list of countries that have opted for digital population census includes advanced nations such as the US, the UK, the Nordic countries and the relatively poor geographies such as Ghana, Swaziland, Malawi, Kenya, South Africa and emerging powers such as Brazil. 

Ghana’s first digital population-and-housing census is going live next month. as one of the first countries in Africa to collect data electronically. Ghana is planning to use tablets and satellite images to enhance data collection. The exercise is expected to cost $84 million (more than Rs 600 crore). This is about 50 per cent more than the previous census, say reports. Kenya, known for its myriad digital experiments including the now-famous m-pesa mobile money, will complete its digital census by December 2021. 

Brazil began its digital census a decade ago. In 2010 itself, census takers were given hand-held touch screen devices with GPS trackers to count heads. But the country didn’t rely on satellite images or mobile applications as those technologies were not really ripe at that point in time. But reports suggest that Brazil didn’t make much headway in its digital census efforts owing to logistical and technological challenges. 

In South Africa, the Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) ran a trial version of the country’s first-ever digital census during August-September 2020. The country’s Census 2021 will use online and telephonic data collection platforms. Citizens will be able to give data via telephone as well as digital channels. The country’s policymakers believe that the digital exercise will help them cut costs and enhance data efficiency. 

Why digital census?

In 2019, a paper ‘Mahaganana: An Approach to a Smart Census in India’, published as part of the International Conference on Innovative Trends and Advances in Engineering and Technology (ICITAET) sponsored by IEEE Bombay, discussed the many advantages of an e-census. The authors, Jigar Wakhariya, Prakhar Gangrade and Amitkumar Manekar said that in a large country like India, counting the population is expensive and time-consuming. “This could be simplified using technology,” they wrote. They demonstrated a “Cross-Platform portal” to conduct the entire process in a digital manner. They called the portal “Mahaganana”.

The argument in favour of the digital census seems pretty solid. Researchers have pointed out that population data in many countries, especially of “statistically under-developed” nations are prone to substantial errors. These errors cost a lot to the economies as population data form the foundation of most policies. Today, in the digital era, the ubiquitousness of smartphone technologies and the internet offers immense possibilities to census-takers. Clearly, a digital exercise can help them save time, energies and cost. 

Also, technologies such as big data analytics, machine and natural language processing, artificial intelligence can help statisticians process population data faster and more efficiently than in the past and the new technologies offer myriad possibilities of cross-checking, fact-checking such data, helping governments to weed out illegitimate beneficiaries and improve targeting of welfare. 

As Atanu Biswas, Professor, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata wrote in October 2019, “registers” such as integrated databases for people and households, locations of work, data from municipalities, geo-information and interactive maps, social security administration, pensions and life insurance benefits, school admission statistics, different types of tax records, health and hospital data, etc are used for producing census data. 

But there are risks

That said, India is planning a digital census at a time when the country is witnessing heated debates around data security, individual privacy rights and state surveillance. Cybersecurity and privacy experts say that even though a digital census can help save cost and time while improving efficiencies, India must be cautious with such an exercise as the move can impinge heavily on individual privacy and can expose the citizenry to unexpected dangers. 

India’s still dabbling with a data privacy law and many experts have criticised the current regime’s obsession towards collecting citizen’s private data. One of the most recent examples was the controversy around the way the Aarogya Setu app collected precious private data. In such a scenario, a digital census using smartphone applications can expose people to unforeseen risks and hence the government must take the civil society into confidence while going ahead with such risky missions. Considering that the digital census exercises in countries such as the US, Australia and even in the UK have been criticised for their many blemishes and technical glitches, the Modi government is best advised to exercise utmost caution and call for an all-party, civil society meet before finalising the contours of the proposed digital census.

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