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Understanding how people live, work and play
Census data provides valuable insights into the diverse needs of communities.
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What have censuses ever done for us?

On 21 March most of the UK’s population will be taking part in the census, the official count of every person and household held every 10 years. Corinne Marti and Craig Walley examine how the data collected from censuses can be harnessed to provide infrastructure and services that deliver better social outcomes for communities.

A census paints a vivid and detailed picture of a nation. It is the single biggest uniform data collection exercise a government will undertake.

The data increases understanding of how people live, work and play, providing insight into the diverse needs of communities – and not just today but in the future.

The typical questions asked in a census cover a range of topics including age, gender identity, housing, qualifications, employment, vehicle ownership, ethnicity, religion and language.

Can the answers people give to these and other questions help plan services such as transport, education and healthcare, design more inclusive infrastructure, and deliver real change in communities?

Yes, they can – if we process the data in a way that helps to inform decisions and engage with stakeholders, enabling projects to be designed from the outset to respond more holistically to community needs.

Improving accessibility

Before we take decisions about new infrastructure projects, we can unpick census data to analyse how people use existing infrastructure – or why they don’t or can’t use it.

Understanding how people get to school, college or work, for example, will shed light on the accessibility and sufficiency of public transport. We can act on this information to widen access to transport through more intelligent siting of services.

Analysing the link between lack of access to a service and a community’s level of social deprivation will help to identify where and how investment can be directed to deliver the most benefit to marginalised groups.

Social and environmental indicators that interrogate the demographics of an area to assess the broader positive impacts of a proposed infrastructure project – such as how many people could make use of the recreational public space created by a new reservoir – will further inform decision-making.

Trends can also be extrapolated from census data to understand what the composition and needs of communities may be in coming decades. Population projections will allow asset owners and operators to estimate likely future demand for energy, water and sanitation, and manage systems and services more effectively and more sustainably.

The impact of change on communities

Every community has different characteristics, be it the demographic make-up, the proportion of different social cohorts, the provision of schools and hospitals, or the quality of the natural environment.

If the outcomes of infrastructure projects are to make a lasting, positive difference to people’s lives, we must, at the very start of the project lifecycle, find and understand the unique needs of each community by drawing on robust data.

A census generates a very comprehensive data set that can be regarded as highly accurate. But it is a snapshot in time and change is constant: from technological change to climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how quickly change can happen.

A census is a ‘source of truth’, but it is not the only data set we can access. If we supplement it with more up-to-date socio-demographic evidence and other studies including local authority data sets, as well as findings from community consultations, we can keep pace with how people’s lives are being impacted by change.

Quantitative versus qualitative data

Census data is quantitative, but by combining it with other data sets we can analyse it qualitatively to create a narrative to support a project, outlining the social outcomes it is intended to deliver rather than just technical outputs.

Infrastructure designers and developers today have to be good communicators, making it easy for the benefits of a project to be understood by residents, stakeholders and local decision-makers. Reporting methods need to be tailored accordingly, with a focus on presenting a narrative that can be used alongside data as part of community consultations and stakeholder engagement, offering the opportunity to provide feedback on the design and scope of projects.

Communities are not homogenous, so it’s also important for projects to be able to clearly articulate which groups will benefit and when.

Visualising data gathered through population and demographic surveys, particularly by mapping using geographical information system tools, will bring data to life and highlight spatial trends in characteristics, often pinpointing the need for intervention.

By demonstrating where and how infrastructure projects could have positive impacts, communities can play a bigger part in the decision-making process and align schemes more closely with their needs and aspirations.

Better analysis, better decisions

The infrastructure sector is also keen to learn more about how it can make a positive difference to communities. There is a growing realisation of its responsibility to address social challenges and deliver on local priorities.

In the UK, there is much discussion about the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, without there being a clear articulation of what this means in a specific locality. It can mean different things in different places.

Census data can help us find out and build the business case for more ambitious projects that deliver transformative social change and level up inequality.

The future is digital

Census 2021 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be the first primarily digital census. Besides cutting costs, this should improve data quality and make it easier and quicker to both complete a census and process the responses.

Technology will radically change how we collect and analyse population and demographic data, possibly reinventing the concept of a census as we know it.

Digital innovation will help us to make better use of socio-demographic data and look at projects through a social lens so we focus on how infrastructure can maximise social outcomes in accessibility, inclusion, empowerment, resilience and wellbeing.

However we conduct censuses in the future, the data they generate will remain vital in the design and development of inclusive projects that improve the lives of people and communities.

The census in England, Wales and Northern Ireland takes place on 21 March. Scotland’s census was moved to 2022 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Corinne Marti

Principal consultant, social development, Mott MacDonald

Craig Walley

Principal consultant, integrated transport, Mott MacDonald

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