Every 10 years in the United States, the government fulfills its constitutional duty and conducts a population census. Originally imagined as a way to determine how many congressional representatives each state should get, it has grown into a method of keeping track of population demographics and other social categories.
Around the world, most countries conduct a census to get information on their populations for government objectives, taxes, and other official purposes. Although the idea of a census is pretty common around the world, the information that turns up is often far from ordinary.
Return of the Jedi?
In the United Kingdom, the 2011 population census asked for standard information about people’s religions. What was not so standard was the number of people identifying as members of the Jedi religion. More than 170,000 people in Great Britain listed “Jedi” as their primary religion, making it the seventh most popular religion in the U.K. The problem? Jediism is a religion from the fictional Star Wars universe.
So many people self-identified as Jedis that the U.K.’s Charity Commission was soon asked to rule on whether it was, in fact, a legitimate religion in the country. (The commission ultimately said “no” to giving Jediism an official status, at least for now.)
Other countries around the world, like Canada and Australia, saw a similar trend in self-declared Jedi knights, but to a much lesser extent. Whether this was merely fans of the movies showing their devotion, or the true emergence of a new religion, the trend seems to be on the decline in recent years.
The Census on the Cutting Edge
When you think of the census, you may think of volunteers and government employees going from door to door, asking questions about each household. But did you know that the U.S. census was one of the earliest uses of computer technology?
After the 1880 census, the U.S. government was struggling to keep up with the data coming in from a larger and more complex population than ever before—and it needed a way to process the information efficiently. Searching for new ideas, they set up a contest for the public, asking them to design a faster method for processing census data. The winner would be hired to process data for the 1890 census.
Herman Hollerith, an engineer and former U.S. Census Bureau employee, came up with a machinized system that processed punch cards, which had census data coded onto them. The machine would “read” the holes punched into the cards, the data would appear on a series of dials, and a clerk would record the information. Hollerith won the contract, and his machine would help the 1890 census be tabulated much faster than usual and under budget. With the success of his machine, Hollerith went on to create the Tabulating Machine Company, which would eventually become global computer company International Business Machines (IBM) after a series of mergers.
The Census and Disaster Recovery
In the United States, census data is used for more than basic population information and assigning the correct number of congressional representatives. Having accurate information about who lives where can also come in handy when emergencies hit.
When hurricanes, wildfires, or other natural disasters strike, accurate data about local populations can help federal agencies assign resources and funds to the areas that need it most. For example, knowing that a large number of people in a particular area speak Spanish can help agencies and emergency workers communicate with local people, give instructions, or get extra resources as necessary.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s On the Map online tool provides real-time information so emergency organizations have the latest information at their disposal. Census data is matched up with geographic information to help manage immediate emergency response or create future emergency preparedness plans.
Knowing who is where also helps the government account for changes after a disaster. Census data can help keep track of how people are doing (and where they are going) after they are evacuated.
Although a country’s census provides valuable baseline information about its population, it can also provide a glimpse into the less quantifiable parts of their lives—whether those are cultural trends (as in the Star Wars census trend) or future planning. We may see the census as a series of numbers, but the stories those numbers tell, and how we process that information, can tell us a lot about life at any given time.