Census Questionnaires Could Be Replaced With Mobile Phone Data

By Tom Pritchard on at

You know the drill about the census. Every decade the government sends round a paper form that you have to fill in with all sorts of personal information, and that way the powers that be get a picture of the population. Now it's looking for alternative methods of data collection, including the use of phone data to map where you live and work.

The government is working on a new initiative designed to source census data through a variety of different methods, ready for the next census in 2021.So the Office of National Statistics partnered up with Vodafone to see what they could gleam from anonymous data collected from customers over the age of 18.

This was detailed in a new report, and while not a foolproof method ONS found that collecting phone data at different times of the day was able to reveal a person's work address and when they were at home. Also collected was information on commuting patterns, which was reportedly corresponding well with data collected during the last census.

ONS also considered looking into whether phone data could be used to determine ethnicity, wealth, and population levels. Wealth I guess could be managed in some case, based on where someone lives and possibly where they work, but ethnicity? Seems a little dicey to me.

To comply with data protection laws, and to try and satisfy anyone worried about privacy, ONS apparently only collected location data and a time stamp of when it interacted with Vodafone's network. Everything else, including identifiable information like names or phone numbers, wasn't touched.

So far the 2021 census is still set to be done the old fashioned way, but it automated data collection can prove itself to be accurate and effective the plan is to implement it by 2023. [ONS via Engadget]

Image: Dave Crosby/Flickr

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