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The Census Doesn’t Count if it Ignores Cultural Diversity

August 9, 2021
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Around the world, government census programs measure key aspects of its population, gender, employment and age but, almost always, each census doesn’t count cultural diversity – at least not in a meaningful way. In building Diversity Atlas, our world-first data-driven mapping platform, our team has considered census data from all corners of the globe and found one glaring similarity.

Our Customer Experience Manager Quincy Hall explains.

Mutuality Matters

Diversity Atlas offers a mutuality feature that allows an organisation to compare their cultural and demographic mix with that of the country (or region) they represent or serve.  We have compiled census data from more than 100 countries to make this feature possible, but of course, data collection from census-taking around the globe differs from country to country, making this task all the more difficult and by extension, all the more important. Pick a country, any country, and there’ll be some aspect of cultural diversity their census doesn’t count, or even attempt to.

As Australia embarks upon its census this week, it is a timely reminder that cultural diversity data has been neglected, ill-defined and poorly gathered around the world since, well,  counting began.

History of Census

It is believed that the ancient Babylonians deployed the first general census of their population, counting not just people but livestock, wool-stores and food supplies.  In 16th century BC, the first King of Athens, King Cecrops, ran a census count that involved the Athenians dropping in one stone for every person (a system arguably still yet to be improved!)

A few centuries later, we also see this reference to an actual cultural diversity count in the Old Testament:  2 Chronicles 2:17

And Solomon numbered all the strangers that were in the land of Israel, after the numbering wherewith David his father had numbered them; and they were found one hundred and fifty thousand and three thousand and six hundred.

From our perspective, accurately defining, measuring and counting cultures and demographics is, to use a colloquialism, a ‘no-brainer’.  How can any organisation, from government down to the primary school canteen, foster harmony and intercultural awareness without first coming to an understanding as to who they are in the first place?  

Mapping the gaps

The Diversity Atlas data analysis team, lead by Rezza Moieni and My Linh Le, pore through the census results country by country. Through this process, they are discovering more gaps than insights, and multiple cultural metrics that each census doesn’t count. Maybe we’re biased, but for us, it is astounding that so much cultural and demographic data is lacking from around the world, especially given that the UN estimate that cultural conflict accounts for $14.3 trillion of the world’s total spend – money that could be no doubt spent better elsewhere, such as on food disbursement, clean water catchments, scientific discovery and climate change initiatives.

It’s not just cultures that are poorly counted. Sexuality data, for instance, especially in and around LGBTIQ status is sadly superficial and often left to guesswork. Disability status is also irregularly defined and inconsistently gathered and, in most countries, is important data that a census doesn’t count.  

Based on their knowledge of your browsing history, it is both sad and true to say that big-tech probably know more about your cultural and demographic identity than your government does, which, being that your government is meant to (in theory) reflect and represent you, may open up cultural gaps at the highest levels of power.  

One case study that we found particularly interesting was France’s lack of data in and around religion and ethnicity.  Their refusal to gather such data came about in 1978 for, we must say, the most noble of reasons, in short, that the values of the republic were aligned to absolute equality among citizens, no matter their ethnic origin or religious belief.  In theory, this sounds positively Utopian but, in practise, it’s backfiring because their census doesn’t count religious affiliation and their census doesn’t count ethnic or ancestral data.

Understanding Cultural differences

The current unemployment rate in France is 8.9%, but what is the unemployment rate among its Muslim population, or its Roma population, or its Sudanese population?  It’s impossible to tell because diversity data is not collected in any official capacity.  It’s not just employment figures that matter either.  What is the life expectancy, the incarceration rate, the literacy level, the median income, the representation at council, or even just a good old ‘what is the population of…’ these groups?  Lack of this data can and will result in misguided policy making, wayward communication strategies, poor health outcomes and even encourage wild conspiracies (eg: over-inflating estimates of a population – “we’re being swamped by Martians!”).  

Fortunately, there is a strong movement in France (and Germany, who have similar policies) to reverse this constitutional law.  A recent article and general overview of this gap in knowledge by Philip Oltermann and Jon Henley in The Guardian quotes Senagalese born French government spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye, who said of data collection that the government should:

…“measure and look at reality as it is”

It’s tempting to use those eight words as a tagline for every census, every survey, every count in the world… it works for Google and it works for football teams, and it should work for governments, just as it did for the biblical figure ‘wise’ King Solomon.  

Still, our data team are doing their best to mine alternate sources, whether it be UNESCO, the UN, the EU or academic research centres around the world who value intricate and accurate data over lofty generalised data.  ‘Guesstimates’ are not workable in the long run. 

In a close football match, it is no good to guess how many goals each team kicked – someone has to take responsibility for counting them, and the teams themselves no doubt know who kicked the goals, who set the goals up, who ran the fastest, what the average age of the team is, their height, and yes – what their cultural background is, all of which is knowledge that assists them to succeed in the future.  If only governments could look at it in those terms as well, we may very well have a higher chance of success in creating a more harmonious world.

If a government census doesn’t count you, how can it include you?

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