It is a country that has high levels of poverty and inequality and asks its citizens on the very first page of the national census if they use a hole in the ground or open cesspit for a toilet. Yet despite all of these obstacles, the Brazilian government has embarked on the world’s first fully digital national census.
It has achieved this ahead of countries like the US whose digital trials failed and resulted in it reverting to an old-fashioned paper based census. The Brazilian census is another example of how developing and emerging countries are using technology to address the challenges they face and leapfrogging developed countries. Click here to see a picture slide show of the socio-economic and political issues of the Brazil 2010 census.
The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), who conducted the survey, opted for off the shelf technology. It ordered 150,000 LG 750 GM smartphones which are widely available and retail at around £180 (US$280). Census interviewers collected responses onto the smartphones which in turn were used to send the data via GPS to one of 7,000 data collection units.
The Brazilians say that the digital census has several advantages over paper and pen methods. They say that the data is more accurate since GPS data will pinpoint the exact location of a household. The GPS data is cross-referenced with satellite images to ensure that responses are correctly geo-tagged. The digital approach allows changes to areas, streets and buildings to be incorporated. This is particularly pertinent in the slums as these areas tend to change quickly and their density mean that printed maps are quickly out of date. The use of digital technology means that mapping is considerably more accurate and that adjustments and changes can be made all the time to ensure that the coverage is as comprehensive as possible.
IBGE estimates that upto 5 per cent of households are incorrectly located in traditional censuses compared with 0.5 per cent of digital data. The census allows data to be collected from remote areas with digital data collection being easier and more robust than paper-based ones. It will ensure that previously hard to reach communities are included in the census for the first time.
The mapping technology also allows for more detailed information on the spatial distribution of public resources such as schools and health centres relative to the density and need of the people and communities around them. The census is also considerably cheaper and is environmentally friendly with the need for paper reduced to a minimum. The budget for the entire survey is R$ 1.67 billion (US$909 million) for a population of 58 million households. Compare this with the US where CNN.com suggests its census will cost US$14 billion for a population that is just one-third greater than that of Brazil’s.
Technology experts say that the US’s digital approach failed because Harris Corporation, the organisation hired for the job, failed because it looked to develop a bespoke hardware device to collect data. Brazil on the other hand had only to develop bespoke software and applications for its computers and smartphones.
Asked about the security and reliability of the data collection, Eduardo Nunes, IBGE President said that data is collected and backed up on the smartphones on two separate memory drives and that data transmitted to collection centres is immediately backed up with integrity tests. Mr Nunes said interviewers experienced little resistance not least because where possible they were recruited from within their communities. He added that paper censuses can get lost too and that their approach had been tested on other surveys since 2007. IBGE
IBGE will also benefit from the faster turnaround of data with the first tranche of data available in months rather than years.
The Government has invested in the digital approach not only to save money but also because it will be central to designing better public policy.
Mr Nunes said: “ Greater emphasis in the 2010 census was given to information on social and demographic spheres. We want to know when and how Brazil will be able to reach the Millennium Development Goals for 2015.”
Marcia Lopes, minister for Social Development said that many social programmes bring basic services such as electricity, health and education to the population: “This census is so important because we in the Government need to know what the population needs.”