x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Ambiguity a threat to census accuracy

Clarity and accuracy are needed if Abu Dhabi census is to reap useful results.

Where did you sleep the night on Monday, 3 October 2011? This is one of 20 questions to be asked today of visitors to hotels, hospitals and similar establishments across Abu Dhabi as part of the emirate's comprehensive census. Residents will be asked a different set of questions.

The aim is laudable. The Statistics Centre Abu Dhabi will collect information about every person in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Al Gharbia, and use the data generated to inform government policies on education, housing, business and investment.

As we've noted on these pages before, the crafting of sound policy requires an unbiased picture of the community being served. This census, the first in the capital since 2005, is a step in that direction. Such efforts should be expanded to other emirates.

But clarity in planning also means no ambiguity in execution, and by this measure, the census may leave some residents questioning whether vows of confidentiality could open them to unwanted trouble. This fear, in turn, could prompt some to voluntarily censor their answers, altering the survey as a result.

Sub-leasing, illegal immigration, singles living in family residences, people of the opposite sex living together without being married - these are all examples of familiar yet technically illicit practices. People who violate these laws would surely be less than forthcoming.

Laws are laws for good reason; we don't condone breaking any. But if accurate data collection is the goal of this census, respondents could expect more clarity on how the information will be used and not be abused.

It is also worth noting that the census, with a stated aim of providing accurate data for health policies, does not ask essential questions of respondents such as the number of disabled people in their household, or their disabilities.

Data-driven solutions must be the goal of any sound policy or government response to progress. But identifying demands for services like hospitals or schools means asking citizens about their experiences. This census is a much needed step in that direction.