How can we scale up tangible surveys to national level and rethink how the UK Census is carried out?


Somerset House as part of the Civic Bureau, Southbank Centre as part of the Web We Want festival

Census data is collected in the UK every ten years through a laborious process of sending out surveys and organising follow-up interviews. Census data is then used by central and local government as a way of deciding how and where to allocate their budgets and to help plan future housing, education, health and transport services. However, as the population grows and changes, the census becomes harder to carry out. Furthermore, there appears to be little public awareness of what happens with collected census data and how sharing information actually manifests positive change in local areas.

In collaboration with the Civic Workshop we designed and developed the Sens-Us system to explore how collecting census data (and other data at scale) could be more dynamic and localised through the use of interactive technologies in-situ as opposed to paper or digital questionnaires.  Sens-Us is a set of physical data collection and visualisation devices consisting of five interactive questionnaire stations that address different themes (demographics, health, belonging, place & city life, and trust), plus a visualisation station that shows collected data in real time. Participants use a smart card to “log in” at each station, so that their answers can be linked across the different themes and so that relevant and personalised data is shown to them at the visualisation station.

For each theme we explored what data people were willing to disclose, with whom, and for what reasons. We also aimed to give people insight into how sharing their data can be beneficial for the common good, and explore how this changes their views on data sharing.

More generally, Sens-Us also raises questions such as, how scaled up data collection activities (such as a census) can be more integrated into our everyday lives, more citizen-led and locally relevant, and how this can change the relationship between citizens and the state.

Sens-Us was deployed for 8 weeks at Somerset House, a prestigious arts venue in central London. During this time over 800 visitors interacted with the
Sens-Us system, answering the census-based questions and viewing collected data. Our results showed that physical systems like Sens-Us provide benefits over paper and digital methods, such as serendipitous discovery, contextual validity, and low barriers to participation. Sens-Us also gave participants more control over how they contributed, by allowing users the flexibility to answer questions in their desired order and to skip certain themes that they did not want to answer. We also explored the privacy aspects of physical systems like Sens-Us where people are providing answers in public, in a physical manner. We compared the answers to sensitive and potentially provocative questions captured through Sens-Us with answers to the same questions captured through an online survey that people answered in their own homes or more private spaces. We found that there was very little difference between the two, suggesting that privacy concerns were not heightened by the act of entering data into a physical device in a public space.