The Census is coming

Article dated: 23 February 2011

A once-in-a-decade event is nearly here. On 27 March 2011, everyone in the UK will be asked to complete a simple standard questionnaire that provides a statistical snapshot of the population as it stands on that one day.

The results can help government and local authorities plan necessary services for the decade ahead and fuel social science research for generations to come.

The UK Data Archive is a partner in this national effort as host of a portal that gives academic researchers support and access to census data. At, part of the ESRC's Census Programme, researchers can get one-stop registration for aggregate statistics, microdata, interaction data, digitised boundary data and longitudinal datasets. The programme currently supports 1971-2001 data, but hopes to provide access to data from the 2011 Census once it has been released by the Government's statistical agencies.

Exhibition to bring census history to life

Ever since the first British census in 1801, each census has generated interest and controversy. A new exhibition tells the story of its development, how the census has influenced our view of society and how it has in turn been shaped by the values and priorities surrounding its implementation.

row of stones

Census and Society: Why Everyone Counts, at the British Library, London, runs from 7 March until the end of May 2011. The exhibition describes some of the people and works surrounding early population counts, including Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population, first published at the end of the 18th century, and John Graunt's Natural and Political Observations, written some hundred years earlier.

The exhibition is organised thematically, with sections on Health, Family and Households, Employment and Migration. Each section includes examples of data from censuses alongside materials that illustrate how life in Britain is changing, and the issues of most concern.

From 1851 onwards, the census was generating data on a scale and at a level of detail unprecedented in Britain. The reporting of census results provided new challenges in statistical representation, and encouraged new ways of thinking about the public presentation of data in visual form.

As well as the official representation of results, Census and Society looks at public and creative responses. Charles Dickens was an enthusiastic reporter of results, and the census features in the last book written by Agatha Christie, The Postern of Fate. The census, and our reactions to it, have been satirised in cartoons from its beginnings through to the present day. It has even featured in church sermons and at least one play. Examples are in the exhibition.

Census events at the British Library

An events programme is running alongside the British Library exhibition, including two study days for researchers who are either using population data or interested in learning more about census data.

On 12 April 2011, there is an introduction to using census data for UK researchers. Organised in conjunction with the ESRC Census Programme and the UK Data Archive, it will feature presentations on interaction data, samples of anonymised records, aggregate data, boundary data and the ONS Longitudinal Study.

On 10 May 2011, the day will focus on longitudinal data sources. This event is organised in conjunction with the UK Data Archive and Longview, and will give an opportunity to talk about major studies, research projects, and their application to policy.

Two-day census conference

Like its predecessors, the 2011 Census promises to provide a unique and valuable resource for researchers. The ESRC's Census Programme is organising a two-day conference on 7-8 July at the University of Manchester, entitled 'Census 2011: impact and potential. Exploring the research potential of the 2011 census'.

Plenary speakers include Paul Boyle, Chief Executive of the ESRC, and Glen Watson and Roma Chappell of the Office for National Statistics. The conference will showcase the research potential of the 2011 data by users of the full range of aggregate and microdata census outputs.