Census 2021 refresher

Census 2021 refresher

Ahead of August’s Australian Census, our resident Census expert has put together a Census refresher, answering all those questions you were too afraid to ask. Do I have to fill it out on the night? When do we get to see the data? What the heck is the Census and why do we do it in the first place?

Keep up-to-date on all Census 2021 news.

The 2021 Census is almost upon us! It feels to me like this one has really crept up – the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who of course run the Census, have been very quiet and won’t start their advertising campaign until early July. This is normal, but with with the last year and a half – when all the focus has been on the pandemic, our work and home lives upended and unable to travel (not to mention unprecedented impacts on Australia’s demographics) – this Census feels a bit surreal! But it’s happening, and Census night is August 10th, 2021!

So with that in mind, this is the first in a series of articles we are doing promoting the Census, Australia’s most important population data source as well as the biggest peacetime logistical exercise. First up, a bit of a refresher: just what is the Census and why does it matter?

What is the Census and why do we have it?

Most countries in the world run a Census, though we are fortunate in Australia to have one more frequently than most – every 5 years.

The Census is simply a count (or “enumeration”) of everyone who is in the country on Census night, with varying levels of extra questions to determine demographic and socio-economic and housing characteristics at the same time. The most fundamental reason for running the Census is to accurately assess the population broken down into smaller areas, which enables accurate distribution of electoral boundaries – essential for our democracy. But the Census is much more than this; it is vitally important for all levels of government, business, research and academia, students and private individuals.

At .id, our focus is naturally on our Local Government partners, who are among the biggest users of Census data. There is a good reason for this. Local Government is about supporting the population and providing services locally. The great thing about the Census is it’s one of only a few, and definitely the best source of small-area data. Because it’s not a sample survey, but counts everyone, you can get data down to really small geographic levels, as seen on .id’s Community Profile (suburb and town level) and Social Atlas (SA1 or neighbourhood level) tools. Census is not the only source of these data but it is the most comprehensive, and consistent – a good reason why most of .id’s online tools rely on it extensively.

The 2021 Census of Population and Housing will be Australia’s 18th national Census. The first was in 1911. (Prior to that the colonies did their own at irregular intervals.) Since 1961 we have had a Census every 5 years, in the years ending in a 1 or a 6, and this is now a part of the legislation. Because of this regularity, the Census is really important for looking at how areas change over time, which is fundamental for how we at .id analyse data. Our Community Profiles now have data for the past 6 Census periods.

What sort of questions are on the Census?

The Census asks a range of demographic, socio-economic and housing characteristics to help understand who lives in an area and how it is changing. The best way to see what sort of questions are asked on the Census is to have a look at our Community Profiles. This includes questions such as age and sex, relationship in household, educational attendance, work and employment, as well as unpaid work and questions about the dwelling you live in.

How do I complete the Census?

For 2021, the ABS is expecting about 75% of households to complete their Census online. An online form has been available since 2006, with increasing uptake each Census. Those who were around for the 2016 Census will remember that the online process wasn’t exactly smooth, with the website going down due to a DDoS attack on Census night and not coming back for 2 days afterwards. No data was compromised and 95% of households still filled it in over the following days and weeks. The ABS assures us this time that they’ve completely rebuilt the online Census form with Amazon Web Services and it’s very secure. But nothing is certain, of course.

Another key difference this year is that they’re not promoting so much the message “Fill in your Census form on Census night”, which was a really large part of the campaign in 2016. You’ve always been able to fill in earlier or later, as long as it includes the people who were in your home the night. (Some questions relate to the day itself.) This time they’re actively encouraging people to fill it in when they get the forms or online login codes, which are expected to be delivered from the beginning of August. In this way the load on the server may be spread out. Of course nothing is certain and we’ll have to wait and see how it goes!

In early August, the ABS mails out an online code to most residential addresses in Australia, and immediately householders can login and fill in the details of everyone in the household. There are provisions for keeping information about each person private (in share households for instance), and people in Non-Private Dwellings (eg. hotels, hospitals, aged care facilities) will have a personal form or code to fill in theirs. This time the ABS will also be offering a contact-free approach for counting people in hotel quarantine due to the pandemic.  There are some other pandemic measures to ensure safety during COVID-19 (more on this in the next article), and you can read about them on the ABS website.

For those who don’t want to fill in online, there will be a number to call to have a paper form delivered. For selected areas with known significant populations without internet access, including elderly people and remote areas, paper forms will be hand delivered or mailed, with a return envelope to post it back to the ABS (but still the option to complete online).

There are also special procedures to ensure people are captured in the Census if they are homeless, have poor English proficiency, remote indigenous populations, and travellers staying in caravans and tents.

How secure is my Census data?

The ABS is really big on privacy. It’s the most important thing – to the point where some of us who use the data get very frustrated at the controls they have in place to protect individual confidentiality and the effect they have on the statistical tables. You can read more about ABS privacy from the horse’s mouth.  And our take on the random adjustment ABS do to ensure no private information is released forms part of the data notes on every Community Profile. There really is no way any private information can be released from the Census, and individual details are not shared with anyone else, even other government departments.

Is the Census compulsory?

Ultimately, the Census is compulsory for every person in Australia on Census night (except diplomats and their families). The ABS can direct people to fill it in, with penalties for non-compliance, though they are rarely applied. The vast majority of the population are happy to fill in the Census and be counted. Census is a great equaliser – everyone counts, no matter where in the nation you live, rich or poor, no matter your gender, ethnic background, employment or housing status. It’s a snapshot of the entire community and that’s what makes it such a powerful tool for decision-making.

So make sure you do your bit, fill in your own Census form on (or around) August 10th, and encourage others to do the same!

When will the data be released?

This is what everyone wants to know! It always takes a while to process the data. Most topics are expected to be released from June 2022, with the more complex topics slated for October 2022. Though our client base are possibly the most active Census users in the country through our online tools, we here at .id don’t get early access to the data, so we only receive it when everyone else outside the ABS does. Once we do we’ll be working around the clock to get the datasets into your Local Government Community Profile, Social Atlas, Economic Profile and Housing Monitor tools, while also taking a good look at the data to re-base our Population Forecasts (forecasts don’t directly show Census data but the information in there is used as a basis for the forecast calculations).

We’ll have more to say about the timeline for these updates closer to release date.

Where can I get more information?

We will keep you updated on how the Census is going in blogs and via emails to all our clients. You can also go to the ABS’ dedicated Census website, which has lots more background info. We note that at this point they are still recruiting for the Census Field Officers (formerly known as Census Collectors) – you’re interested in working on the Census you can apply via the website.

What’s new this Census?

There are a few things which have changed for the 2021 Census. Some new topics, which we’re quite excited about. And changes to the way the Census is run and promoted as well as COVID-safe initiatives. I’ll be having a look at all the changes in my next article.

In the meantime, don’t forget you can get all the 2016 and earlier Census data, along with annual and monthly updates of other datasets via our online Community Profiles for most local government areas. Don’t see your area on the list? Drop us a line at

Glenn - The Census Expert

Glenn is our resident Census expert. After ten years working at the ABS, Glenn's deep knowledge of the Census has been a crucial input in the development of our community profiles. These tools help everyday people uncover the rich and important stories about our communities that are often hidden deep in the Census data. Glenn is also our most prolific blogger - if you're reading this, you've just finished reading one of his blogs. Take a quick look at the front page of our blog and you'll no doubt find more of Glenn's latest work. As a client manager, Glenn travels the country giving sought-after briefings to councils and communities (these are also great opportunities for Glenn to tend to his rankings in Geolocation games such as Munzee and Geocaching).

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