Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Census awkwardness

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Page from the Domesday Book for Warwickshire, ...

Domesday Book

Census day is almost upon us. Filling in the census form is not that difficult, and, seeing as it is used to direct government policy and funds, it is fairly important. Genealogists love those old censuses, like trainspotters anoraking for the Flying Scotsman, but as a statistical exercise the census is deeply flawed. Governments need information on their citizenry to function well, and we have been subjected to them since Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem, and Will Conker got his hands on our Domesday Book. Fears about invasion of privacy, Big Brother and the database state are almost certainly overstated; of all the information held about citizens the census is probably the most secure and the most difficult to misuse. However, I am concerned that huge US arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin have been given the contract to process the census forms. We have been given assurances that the data will be safe, and I believe them (after all, I do not think the CIA would find our census returns that interesting, as they can already locate and profile each of us in a dozen different way).

So, what is to be done? I do not recommend doing anything illegal with census forms. Not returning the form, failing to answer a question (except an optional question like the religion one) or supplying incorrect information can land us with a £1000 fine. However, I do object to Lockheed Martin getting public funds for census work. Their plan is to process your census form in a few seconds flat, using computers that scan the pages, rip the information and add it to the database all at once. My suggestion is that we make them work for their money. After all, if I make a few innocent mistakes on my form and turn their few seconds into ten minutes of entering data by hand, that’s less profit going to the arms dealer, and more to the minimum-waged workers at the processing centre. If enough of us are awkward enough, the casual workers at the centres will get more work and pay, and Lockheed Martin will make less profit. After a bit of searching I found some nice tips on how to be census awkward — short version / long version. Here is a very short guide of how best to fill in the census form:

  1. The bar codes help Lockheed Martin process the form really quickly, to slow them down a bit
    1. It is always fun to fill in some of the white spaces in the bar codes on most of the pages.
    2. It is very easy to loose the envelope and then have to fold the form twice to fit another envelope and write the Freepost address on it. This might prevent the initial registering of the form as sent (so someone might call round and ask if you have sent it) and make it difficult to feed the crumpled pages into the machine.
  2. The machine uses optical character recognition to rip the information of the form. It is far too easy to write in joined-up or go outside of the boxes, which means the machine cannot read the form.
  3. A few mistakes and crossings out, especially with those tick boxes, is inevitable, and just makes it more difficult to figure out.

Remember to be nice to the poor people at the processing centres (write ‘sorry’ when you make mistakes), and remember not to miss a question out (unless you supply the missed information by letter later, which will really slow them down) or supply incorrect information. Stay legal, and reallocate our tax money away from a cluster-bomb multinational to the people so desperate they signed up for casual work in their processing centres.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

9 thoughts on “Census awkwardness

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  9. I wouldn’t be commenting if I didn’t like this blog.. you’re a great writer & I’m quite impressed to say the least. keep up the nice work

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