Don’t be afraid of the census

Back in 2005, early in my English sojourn, I came upon a neat story about seeing what the houses of your neighbours were worth.

A new website which tells surfers how much people paid for their homes claims to have had 50m requests in just six weeks. gives information from the Land Registry of England and Wales and Registers of Scotland about the selling price of residential properties bought since April 2000.

Full disclosure – the story I remember was far more entertaining. I think it ran in the Times of London, not the Guardian, but that was the only one I found in my lazy News Googling.

The point is this story in today’s Australian (actually tomorrow’s Australian – datelines are fun!). The story? The Australian Bureau of Statistics has said it would release data from the last Census, online. For free. This Wednesday. Leading the Australian’s Stephen Lunn to create the Citizen Statistician (the actual motive for the article, I think – which is fair, that is kind of cool). He also used the term ‘helicopter over’ – what the crap is that?

As the journalists look to helicopter over the data on Wednesday in their attempt to define the Australia we all live in and can expect in the future, Citizen Statistician can hop online and zero in on the characteristics of their own suburb, and whether they come in under or over the median line.

Looking over the virtual back fence has never been so revealing.

The data released will be disaggregated down to the level of Collection District (meaning you will get totals/averages for collection districts, not addresses, individuals or postcodes):

The Census Collection District (CD) is the smallest geographic unit of collection. Generally defined as an area that one Collector can comfortably cover delivering and collecting Census forms, there are on average around 225 dwellings per CD, and around 38,000 CDs in total in Australia. In 2001, Census CDs in major cities were altered where possible to conform to suburb boundaries, allowing census statistics to be produced for these areas.

I also learned (from an anonymous anonymousaur at the ABS who will remain …not known) that those killer-chic ABS trendies (it really is worth reading the article) will introduce into the good data random error (i.e. bad information, and extra, non-observed invented information) when something is being given away. Meaning that if you’re afraid you’re the only muslim in your street and everyone will learn how much you earn, what your health is like, your wife’s age, etc. don’t be. For a start the data is unlikely to give that away, and if the people who gathered suspect that it will, they’ve invented white noise to cover you.

I’m not suggesting Stephen Lunn either expected or recommended paranoia – I think he wanted to write about how non-dorky the ABS is (?) and use the words Citizen Statistician. But I can see it happening – I’m surprised the media hasn’t had a go at it themselves, although I can understand them finding this sort of thing, rather than simple stereotyping, generalising and pigeon-holing. I look forward to A Current Affair and Today Tonight’s race to find the first family in Australia hassled based on some racist wanker finding something in the databases.


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