PAKISTAN has planned the next (digital) census in October 2022 after an inter-censal interval of just five years — instead of the conventional 10 years followed by other countries — and after missing the 2001 and 2011 censuses.

The last census, conducted in 2017, was based on the traditional methodology with an application of conventional tools and a paper-based questionnaire, and its results were challenged.

Read: Census 2017 — how can flawed results have any credibility?

Pakistan is taking a big leap of faith in planning to move to a so-called digital census with only a few months of preparation.

In the meanwhile, other countries have made significant progress in both the methodology and use of technology. Neighbouring Iran and Egypt have successfully conducted a digital census while Turkey has made progress in introducing the combined census methodology. Better capture of urban areas in censuses have also been significant in Bangladesh and India. But all these countries, according to exp­e­­rts who attended the 22nd Annual Conference of the Population Association of Pakistan, went throu­­gh long periods of preparation and iterative testing.

Iran’s design and planning for the 2016 e-census took two whole years with 20 dedicated working groups and committees. Egypt took two years to prepare, design, plan, and initiate the pilot testing of the 2017 e-census. The question is, how strong is our groundwork for undertaking the 2022 digital census? Is the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) prepared and confident or merely complying with political expediency and the whims of transitioning to the electronic age without serious consideration?

The planning phase is vital and central for a census. A census technical committee was constituted in 2021 and was asked to complete its recommendations for the next census in a record three months. The recommendations have already been published by the PBS. A National Census Coordination Centre has been announced to oversee the actual census. However, a census action plan elaborating all the operational stages of the census is missing. This has either not been prepared or has not been made public.

If the pilot testing in August is to be followed by the full census in October 2022, it must entail a full dress rehearsal.

A fully digitised census, as defined by the United Nations Statistical Commission (UNSC), requires key geospatial technological tools for use in census mapping, including satellite images, aerial photography, geo-referenced address registry and GIS for enumeration maps. Accordingly, the automation (e-census/ digital census) would include a pre-enumeration phase/ delineation of enumeration areas through the utilisation of digital maps at all levels. Such maps, if shared widely with the public and political leadership, would give everyone much greater confidence that their jurisdictions are adequately covered.

While the PBS does expect to transfer data collected in face-to-face interviews with the handheld data collection instrument, other steps such as GIS facilities for data collection as well as data edits and cleaning require a trained cadre of professionals and a qualified internet network to allow direct transfer of data from the handheld instruments to the central data centre. It is not clear whether the GIS Wing under the Support Services Wing of the PBS has the systems in place to meet the standards set by the UNSC, as well as the requirements for the first-time digital census of Pakistan. The National Statistical and Spatial Data System is said to be capable of providing a map-digitising facility, for accuracy and better visualisation of enumeration areas using imagery. If these maps are shared with the public, they would allay many of our fears that several parts of the country might be erroneously missed.

A pre-test is scheduled for August. The testing of the questionnaire in the environs of large cities will not be enough to assess the challenging new methodology of the forthcoming census.

Before the actual roll-out and implementation of the e-census, Iran and Egypt conducted two pilot tests. For the 2016 Iran census, the first pilot test was conducted in 2014 to check the information that was already available and to compare preliminary results. The second test conducted in 2015 tested, checked and validated the prerequisites.

If the pilot testing in August is to be quickly followed by the full census in October 2022, it must entail a full dress rehearsal. It should not be limited to the census questionnaire(s); it should also test prerequisite arrangements of the 2022 census.

Foremost are concerns about the anticipated response rate. What is the expectation for Pakistan, where illiteracy rates are high especially among women? After all, the 2017 census done through standard paper interviews was misconstrued and is still disputed. The response rate in Iran for the online completion of census was encouraging. In highly educated Canada, the online completion only reached 68 per cent in the third round of this type of census. The transition to digital and self-enumeration needs to be gradual, based on the experience of other countries of the world.

Editorial: Digital census

Questions about the 2022 census are already on the public’s minds. Above all, the public deserves a full explanation of the steps planned and confidence in the system through open communications on the census prior to its start.

The PBS has successfully managed the use of computer tablets in its two recent large-scale activities, but there is a big difference between surveys and censuses. Census results, with which political demarcation and financial resources are tied, cannot afford to be contested in each round. Lessons learnt from the earlier Census 2017 is that execution in two long spells was counterproductive. The duration of the enumeration phase must be short and continuous. And full transparency of data collection and data processing, especially with the provinces, should be ensured.

Undoubtedly, the use of technology in all census phases would help alleviate mistrust of the census data and build confidence.

A high-level advisory committee could be established by engaging provinces, different ministries, and universities and, like Egypt, it should be headed by a federal minister and include civil society and government experts. Above all, the 2022 Census Action Plan must be shared in advance with parliamentarians as well as major political parties and media to avoid the pitfalls of rejection of the results even before the expensive and laborious census process starts.

Dr G.M. Arif is President, Population Association of Pakistan.

Dr Zeba Sathar is Country Director, Population Council.

Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2022

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