Every five years, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) counts every person and home in Australia. This is called the Census of Population and Housing. This year, the Census is on Tuesday 10 August.
The Census form asks questions about who we are, where we are and how we live and work.
How is Census data helpful?
The Census is a snapshot of our population and tells the story of how we are changing. It takes the guesswork out of preparing for the future – as individuals, families, communities and as a nation.
Census data is used for lots of things, big and small. It informs how funding is shared between states and territories, our electoral boundaries, and planning transport, schools, roads, housing and healthcare services.
An independent assessment of the Census found that every $1 we spend on the Census creates $6 of value to the Australian economy.
Here are some specific examples of how the data helps:
- Researchers have been able to model the potential impact of COVID-19
- Regional and rural communities can access health care through the Royal Flying Doctor Service
- Disadvantaged students have more pathways to tertiary education
- New playgrounds are being built in suburbs with lots of families
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have more access to health care and transport
Census data is also important for market research companies like D&M Research. We use it in all projects (and in our free Research Bites reports) to ensure our survey sample groups reflect the population profile, and ultimately to provide statistically reliable research.
In one way or another, every Australian benefits from completing the Census.
Features and changes in the 2021 Census
- Flexibility: For the first time in Australia’s Census history, there will be a window of time to complete the Census, rather than a single night, so you can fill in your form at a time that best suits you.
- New and discontinued topics: There will be new questions on long-term health conditions, such as arthritis and diabetes, and on defence force participation. Questions about home internet access will be discontinued, considering the rise of mobile devices. These mark the first significant changes to questions collected in the Census since 2006.
- Variety of completion options: You will be able to complete your Census online, on your mobile device, on paper, or with help from the ABS.
- Variety of assistance options: Help will be available online, by phone, and in person for those who need it. There will also be translated information available in a number of languages.
Privacy and security
The ABS keeps personal information safe and secure. Organisations can’t access any personal information you include on your Census form. This includes government departments and direct marketing companies.
The ABS has a range of processes that make sure information on Census forms stays confidential. They use the strongest encryption technology available to make sure information from the online Census form is secure. If you use a paper form, they give you reply paid envelopes to return the form.
Under the Census and Statistics Act 1905, they must not release personal information in a way that can identify a person, household or business. It’s against the law for any past or present staff member to share, in any way, information collected under the Act.
Learnings from the 2016 Census
You might remember the debacle that was the 2016 Census, which moved to digital-first data collection.
On Census night, 9 August 2016, at about 7.30pm, the Census website was hit by distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. The site was flooded with traffic in an attempt to overload it and shut it down. Along with a hardware failure, and a false report that data was at risk, there was widespread concern about the security of the census. Just after 8pm the ABS took the website offline for nearly 43 hours.
A Senate committee review of the 2016 Census ultimately placed blame on IBM for not meeting its contractual obligations in keeping the site up, and the ABS for putting too much trust in IBM. Following that review, in the 2019 federal budget, the ABS received $38.3m to address issues arising out of the 2016 Census in order to prepare for 2021.
Speaking to The Guardian, ABS chief information security officer Julian Doak said the bureau has “rebuilt the system from the ground up.” The Australian Cyber Security Centre was involved from the beginning and the committee’s recommendations were incorporated in full.
Extensive testing by cybersecurity experts has been done, including ethical hacks, penetration testing, ongoing code reviews and DDoS testing. “We have to be prepared for everything, including kids in their parents’ basement who would think it would be a great idea if they could get into the system. That [and] state actors,” added statistician David Gruen. “We do it as carefully as we possibly can so that we protect people’s privacy, but it is something that means that you have to have as sophisticated protections as you possibly can.”
Despite the issues in 2016, more than 63% of households completed the Census online, and that rate is expected to increase to about 75% in 2021.
How to complete the 2021 Census
Every household, which may be comprised of one or more people, and each individual in a non-private dwelling, such as a hotel, is required to complete the Census.
Completing the Census online
Most households (around 85%) will receive a Census letter, either by post or delivered by a Census field officer. This letter will include a unique Census online code for each dwelling and instructions on how to complete the online Census form. People will visit the Census website, enter their Census online code, create a password, and then start the Census.
Completing a paper Census form
A paper Census form will be delivered to the remaining dwellings, those in areas where we do not have accurate addresses, areas that do not have reliable internet access, or where the ABS considers people are more likely to respond on a paper form. Alternatively, paper forms can be requested online or by calling the automated Census Paper Form Request Service which will be established in 2021.
A reply-paid envelope will be provided for the return of the completed Census paper form.
Requesting a private Census form
Some people may prefer to keep their Census information private from people they live with. The ABS can send instructions on how to complete the Census online, or a separate paper form, for those who prefer to complete the Census as an individual rather than as part of a household.
Away from home in August 2021
Some people will be away from home on Census night. They should complete their Census where they are staying on Census night. People who are overseas on Census night are not required to complete the Census. The ABS will provide details closer to the time about what to do if no one is staying at home on Census night.
Information on this page has been obtained from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and is licensed under CC BY 4.0.