Applied Spatial Analysis and Policy

, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp 735–737 | Cite as

Book Review: The Routledge Handbook of Census Resources, Methods and Applications: Unlocking the UK 2011 Census, J. Stillwell (Ed.). Published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2018. Pages: xxv + 473. Price:£140.00 (Hardback). Print ISBN: 9781472475886. eBook ISBN: 9781315564777

  • Daniel J. Exeter

The UK census of the population and dwellings is a complex undertaking in which the ‘event’ of residents answering a form about individual - or household - specific circumstances on Census night (27 March 2011) represents the culmination of nearly a decade’s planning. Results from the Census are used extensively at all levels of government, by researchers, in private organisations and among NGOs.

In order to realise the potential that socio-demographic data obtained from the Census offers, users should be aware of its provenance, its limitations, and how others have used the data in different settings. Through the publication of The Routledge Handbook of Census Resources, Methods and Applications, John Stillwell has brought together leading population geographers and demographers and created a volume that provides a comprehensive guide to all aspects of the census.

This book comprises 33 chapters compiled into six parts. The introduction is the first of two chapters in Part 1 and describes the census in an international and UK context, before briefly outlining the benefits and disadvantages of alternatives to a census such as surveys or administrative data, and describes the high-level overview of the dissemination channels of the 2011 Census. Chapter 2 is a comprehensive history of the Census in the UK since 1801, focusing first on key developments in census taking and methodology before delving into the inclusion of questions addressing different topics. Part 2 also contains 2 chapters, with Chapter 3 describing the 2011 Census from preparation to publication and Chapter 4 focused on explaining the quality assurance processes adopted for the 2011 Census. Most readers of this journal will be very familiar with the output geographies and dissemination of the census data but these clear and concise chapters expose the major considerations that took place behind the scenes. These include higher-level considerations such as the form going online in response to societal change, engaging with the diverse community of stakeholders to meet their needs (Chapter 3), and the different stages of quality assurance undertaken (Chapter 4). In Part 3, attention turns to the dissemination of data, with chapters discussing aggregate statistics (Chapter 5) digital boundary files (Chapter 6), interaction data (Chapter 7), census microdata for more granular analyses of individuals or households (Chapter 8) and the UK’s longitudinal studies (Chapter 9). Collectively, Part 3 reflects the shift within the UK (and internationally) toward making census data as open as possible. As a regular user of Census data from NZ and the UK, I was envious that the Census Dissemination Strategy included teaching datasets of microdata and that access to different attributes included in the interaction data and the longitudinal studies is dependent on whether the user is a ‘public’ or ‘expert’ user based in the UK. In Part 4, there are seven chapters dedicated to visualising the Census, with examples using existing desktop software such as MS Excel (Chapter 14) to describe demographic patterns, or using R to automate the publication of a Census Atlas (Chapter 13), through to more advanced options using JavaScript (Chapter 16) or other open source software (Chapters 10, 11,12, and 15). The UK’s long history of using the Census for research is recognised in Part 5, with nearly half the book (Chapters 17–33) dedicated to highlighting research exemplars. In the Foreword, the National Statistician states that the success of a census is defined not by the number of people that complete the forms on Census Night, but by how the data are used. In Part 5, the census data are used as a social barometer, typically highlighting the situation as at 2011 and reflecting back to 2001 (or in some cases to 1971), to quantify the (spatial) extent to which aspects of the population have converged or diverged over time. The research chapters highlight how the population has changed, where these changes have occurred and while many chapters compare against retrospective social circumstances, there is also a nod to the use of the current Census to estimate future health care need. Part 6 contains the final Chapter (33) which looks forward to the 2021 online Census and beyond.

In the age of Big Data, fake news, linkage of administrative data for analyses and social media, it seemed very appropriate that the “who’s who” of population geography and demography in the UK have united to advocate for the Census. The close collaboration between the Offices of National Statistics from the home countries of the UK and the academic community is a model that should be encouraged in other countries.

One of the impressive aspects of this book is the way in which the Census has embraced technological advances in order to maximise its user-base. These advances range from the use of APIs to enable 3rd party organisations to rapidly use census results, to using visualisation approaches more commonly associated with non-geographic environments. The authors of more technical chapters have done an excellent job at balancing the amount of technical jargon for the experts and prose that is more accessible to readers relatively new to using the Census.

The £140 price tag for the hardcover version is reasonably expensive, however I would encourage census users and libraries around the world to see this as an investment, not as an expense. There is a plethora of intricacies related to the collection and dissemination of the 2011 census which are covered in this Handbook, and there is no doubt that this will become a vital resource for census data users from a wide range of backgrounds, both within the UK and abroad.


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Conflict of Interest

The author has no conflicts of interest to declare.

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Epidemiology & Biostatistics, School of Population HealthThe University of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand

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