Moving the Census online will make it more meaningful, according to the columnist Christopher Gallagher writing in the Public Sector Executive. The Census holds the keys to building a richer picture of society and the economy, and moving it online will allow it to be more accurate and lower its costs.

Carried out every ten years by the Office for National Statistics, the Census already gives a valuable picture of the state of the nation. It plays a vital role in informing policies in the public and private sectors. Moving in online will allow even more information to be gathered a lower cost.

If the Census is online, questions can be expanded. How does the increase in life expectancy and multi-generational living impact on households, for example? Or what about changes to the working world – the gig economy for example. What are its effects on GDP, living standards and morale? And are people comfortable enough to tell the Census about their sexual orientation or transition? Gallagher sees two key opportunities – although they are used to some extent at present.

Administrative data can be combined with standard population statistics, which gives insights into the UK which wouldn’t have been available ten years ago. This includes data on how income tax receipts have changed as the population size, and the number of people in self-employment has grown.

Another opportunity is to use the analytics to reveal aspects of the community that can be difficult to spot, such as what key factors affect self-employment in the major cities and how does this compare to self-employment in rural areas. Online analytics can also provide a tool for an assessment of how people feel about the Census, allowing for targeted promotional activities to increase engagement.

Powerful analytics engines, Gallagher says, will enable public sector organisations to take advantage of precision accuracy – giving councils and health boards the right tools for the right job. Questionnaires that are more detailed will set off privacy alarm bells and technology that complies with data legislation must be used. Costs are a huge factor. An example quoted in the piece is that of the US Census Bureau, which used advanced analytics to cut costs. Its 2010 census was $1.6 billion under budget and yet got 72 percent engagement. The Census provided them with a richer picture of the US society and economy.

Daniel Curran, founder and managing director of Finders International, said: “We’re very familiar with censuses, as we use them extensively in our work to trace the rightful heirs to an estate when someone dies intestate. “As we use censuses from different periods, we’ve seen changes in the data collected over the decades. More information will certainly provide plenty of useful information for firms like outs in the future, as well as painting a truly representational picture of what it is like to live in the UK.”