Articles ONS looks to social media for census data

ONS looks to social media for census data


The ONS is piloting the use of new data sources such as social media in the census, writes Jason Leavey. But don’t expect changes to be implemented anytime soon.

The Office for National Statistics could incorporate data from social media and other commercial sources – such as Twitter and property portal Zoopla – into the census, the Financial Times reported recently (£).

The ONS has been exploring a range of new data sources beyond its traditional household survey.  As part of its Big Data Project it is scoping the potential of alternative data sources such as mobile phone data, purchase transactions, smart meters, sensors, social media data, online video and audio to inform the census. Four pilots are in progress to understand the challenges of effectively working with such new data sources and how to surmount other barriers, particularly the thorny issue of privacy.

Social media data would be combined with more traditional administrative data sources such as the land registry and social housing providers.

The Market Research Society argues that adding new data sources would make the new data incomparable with previous censuses thereby skewing trend data, the FT reports.

Currently the household survey, carried out every ten years, reaches 94% of the population. The ONS is hoping new data sources will enable it to close the gap and also cut costs significantly. The estimated bill for the 2011 census was £480 million.

The Alliance for Useful Evidence looked at the issue of social media data and its usefulness for public policy in 2013. As Jonathan Grant, then a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, put it at the time: “We had a census a couple of years ago and we’re only now starting to get information from it. I don’t buy it that we can’t get that information some other way now.”

The ONS does not appear to be in any hurry, however. Its recommendations will be made in 2023, well after the next census in 2021. As part of its Census Transformation Programme the ONS is reviewing many aspects of its operations relating to the census and how to make best use of all available data.


Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.