It is the mother of all surveys: the census. It already existed in antiquity, the Gospel of Luke in the Bible reports in the Christmas story an order from the Emperor Augustus “that everyone be esteemed”. Back then, the inhabitants of an empire were counted so that the ruler could access the right number of soldiers and taxes.
In the judgment, the informational self-determination of citizens was defined for the first time as a fundamental right. The census has been stopped. In modern times, however, censuses have a different function: they provide important data for politics and administration in order to be able to carry out effective long-term planning. After all, the distribution of state investments between federal states and municipalities (e.g. for education or housing construction) depends on the development of the population, and this can only be predicted if the situation current is recorded as accurately as possible.
The counts cause some surprises
After the failure of the census, new laws were passed which served as the basis for the 1987 census. Then for a long time only smaller surveys were conducted, a large census took place only in 2011 – for the first time not as a full survey, but on the basis of a random sample. At the time, the results were a surprise – some federal states, cities and regions were actually larger or smaller than long predicted. Cities like Hamburg and Berlin were particularly affected.
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“Privacy is part of our DNA”
Now is the time for a new count. As in previous years, the Federal Statistical Office in Wiesbaden is responsible. This is called the 2022 census. The term census is avoided because it is no longer a full census, as it was in previous centuries.
The sample of 11 million
Stefan Dittrich studied economics and leads the “Census” group at the Federal Statistical Office. He and his colleagues must master a colossal task. Although only a sample, the scope of the census survey is huge compared to conventional surveys: up to 11.4 million people need to be interviewed, i.e. 2.3 million more than in 2011, when a survey approach was already used.
The approximately 100,000 investigators required – in official German, they are “investigators” – are recruited by cities and municipalities. Interviews are both face-to-face and online. According to Dittrich, neither survey method is better or worse. However, it is important to note that the random sample is stratified.
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“Today, many people know that decisions must be based on facts”
The procedure has been developed over a long period of time and can be read in the WISTA magazine published by the Federal Statistical Office. Moreover, the census is not a “normal” survey. Of course, advertising measures are used to specifically emphasize the reputation and purpose of the study. But if you don’t want to participate, you won’t get out of it so quickly, because ultimately there is a legal basis which provides for an obligation to inform. “If necessary, we will remind the participants in a friendly way several times, but in the end there is also the threat of a fine,” explains Dittrich.
Refusal can be punished
There are some interesting changes in this year’s census compared to the previous one in 2011: The sample has also been expanded to include smaller communities. And about 16,000 community dwellings and dormitories (e.g. nursing homes) are screened in a comprehensive survey – both are used to more accurately measure the number of inhabitants.
Property owners are also fully registered. The survey is carried out in writing or via an online questionnaire. Questions about cold rents and heating equipment will provide valuable information for future climate, energy and housing construction policies. The online survey was tested and optimized in a test carried out in 2021.
Research time was also invested in the creation of the online questionnaires used. Because the motto of this year’s census is: Online First. Of course, the optimized online questionnaire has a responsive design, a modern graphic display and intelligent filtering, so that each person only sees the questions that are relevant to them. Good readability, accessibility and a sufficiently large font size are particularly important so that people with poor eyesight or other disabilities have the same opportunity to complete the questionnaire correctly. The questionnaire should also be formulated in different languages and in a generally understandable way. To test all this, pre-tests were carried out, both qualitative (n = 100) and with two quantitative tests with n = 140,000 participants. The effort required is therefore enormous.
Enumerators are the ancestors of digitization
Protests against a 1983-like census seem strange to us today, given how much we willingly reveal about ourselves to online stores, social media, and other digital platforms. The sociologist Armin Nassehi describes the digital society in his book “Example” and sees in the censuses and social statistics of the 19th and 20th centuries the precursors of the current penetration of digital data in all areas of life.
Because they provided the numbers with which society tries to master its own complexity. Sociology, opinion polls and market research are also methods that can be used to identify patterns and regularities on an abstract level that otherwise escape everyday attention. Digitization has broadened this perspective and almost perfected it. Google & Co seem to know more about us than any government stat.
In this context, the census appears hopelessly backward and ultra-modern at the same time. Modern because it enables evidence-based policy and administration. Back because data collectors in the online world have so much more information at their disposal. But while their troves of data are not transparent and inaccessible to outsiders, the work of the Federal Statistical Office is clearly regulated. Based on the 1983 Constitutional Court ruling, the law stipulates exactly how a census should be taken and used. The data is not only available for the state, but also for science and market research. The website of the Federal Statistical Office destatis.de is therefore a veritable goldmine for data professionals.
The census is also in the interest of citizens
The census, very important for officials, is an institution that benefits all citizens. The Federal Office therefore wishes to provide information on the census and has created its own website for this purpose. A situation like the 1980s, when there were mass protests against the census, is hard to imagine today, but caution prevails in the age of fake news. There is also a “fact check” on the census website, with which rumors and fears are cleared up. Here it is again explicitly: No, no information on income or vaccination status is collected during the census, no identity card of respondents is checked and no one is invited to participate in a competition.
The mass of data collected requires a considerable amount of testing and analysis, so the results of the extensive data collection will only be released in the fall of 2023. For market specialists, it is not only the pure population figures which are relevant, but also household structures (which say something about changed family structures) deserve further examination, especially the new figures on energy sources used and rents. Official statistics and market studies share not only a common tradition, but also the function described by Nassehi: to provide facts to better understand the mechanisms of our complex society. One more thing: this census will probably be the last with sampling: digitization, the right to register, exchange between offices – all this will mean that in the future only a pure register census will have to be carried out . Then there will be no more census.