x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Census to pave a path for policy

Information collected could reshape the way country plans for services but data will not be available until at least 2013.

Experts hope that next year's census will improve the country's poor statistical information and help policy makers plan for schools, hospitals and nursing homes. The 2010 census will also overhaul maps and atlases, helping researchers visually chart where population growth is occurring.

Nazmi Saleous, a professor of geographic information systems at UAE University said the real value from a census would probably come from such maps. And according to a statement last week from the Ministry of Economy, a "UAE Atlas" is in the works. "The atlas features maps and data related to services, telecommunication, transportation, schools, buildings, soil, geology and topography," the statement said. "It also includes maps on population, agriculture industry commerce, trade exchange and geography."

The ministry has declined to comment further. That kind of atlas would make statistical data more accessible and useful, Mr Saleous said. For example, by plotting the locations of 10-year-old children in Abu Dhabi, officials could decide where to build new schools, he said. It would be useful to have that data in geographic information systems format as it would mean more people would be able to use it, he said. And "because of urban growth, the urban area itself is growing very quickly and that should be reflected in the atlas."

This census is also expected to be the first to address divorce, which is thought to affect almost 75 per cent of Emirati couples. The last census was distributed in 2005. It was the first to chart such factors as disease, computers, internet access and disability. However, it did not cover vital information such as income levels and countries of origin. Eckart Woertz, economics programme manager at the Gulf Research Centre, said the data were needed to give researchers, international organisations and universities a better understanding of the stratification of the society.

"There should be more detail. The quality of data could be improved," he said. "It's vital for economic and policy planning. You need to know how many people live there, are retiring, go to school and how many conscripts will go into the army." The poor standard of statistical information is a regional issue, he said. "Compared to international standards, the quality of data is not very good in the UAE," he said. "Other GCC countries are slightly better, but face similar issues."

Census data also could be an invaluable resource in the health field, experts say. Individual medical records are being centralised by the federal health authorities, according to Dr Charles Stanford, a director at Lifeline Hospital. But the link between health and broader social factors are still missing. "How many people are in bed, incapacitated? We don't know," he said. "In general terms, we need to know what we're not providing help for."

Census data that compiles information about who is suffering from chronic illnesses, or mental or physical disabilities, will help planners to decide where hospitals should be built and whether they require upgrading. "Data can show the links between social aspects and medical aspects," Dr Stanford said. "Any additional information about help is enormously beneficial." The 2010 census is being conducted in tandem with similar initiatives across all the GCC states. Officials said the project would require more than two years to collect, analyse and publish all the data.

jgerson@thenational.ae