Confidentiality concern for upcoming census

POSTED: 03/21/11 6:05 PM

Last test in the Netherlands returned 26 percent no response

St. Maarten – The campaign to raise awareness about the upcoming Census kicked into higher gear this weekend with the appearance of bill boards along public roads. The almost carnivalesque image suggests that the census is all fun and games, and that it is in people’s best interest to cooperate. The success of the census, and therefore the reliability of the data it will produce, depends on that cooperation.

The census will take place between April 9th and April 17th. The main concern for many residents will be how the census takers are going to handle their information. Especially people who have no legal status will be weary, or even outright afraid, to answer “28 questions about living accommodation” and “at most 54 questions about demographics, health and education.”

Participation in the census is, according to the web site obligatory. The Netherlands made participation in the 1971 census obligatory under a penalty of 14 days imprisonment of a 1,000 Dutch guilders (€450 or $630 – without inflation-correction). That led to huge protests, but in the end just 268,000 people refused to cooperate, while an unknown number intentionally gave wrong information to the census takers.

The 1971 census led to intense discussions about the government’s right to gather personal information, and about citizen’s rights to the protection of their privacy. The protests had a long-lasting effect to such an extent that the government had to postpone the 1981 census, and six years later the Dutch gave up, though it would last until 1991 before the parliament passed ;legislation to abolish the census completely. The reason for this decision was that the resistance against this system of counting heads persisted. A test in the late eighties showed that an unexpectedly high percentage (26 percent) refused to cooperate. However, the government also found that there were other ways to get their hands on this information.

This year, the Netherlands will conduct a virtual census, whereby databases will be linked to the basis administration of municipalities and the citizen’s service number.

Against this background the census in St. Maarten seems to be heading for a limited success. Citizens will be visited by an enumerator – an expensive word for census taker that not everybody will understand.

The census will first and foremost focus on numbers. How many people actually live in St. Maarten, and how old are they? Other questions will be about how people live, the kind of work they do, the way they go to work, and about their healthcare needs.

On the census web site, there is a vague reference to the confidentiality of the information the census takers will gather. “Information will not be shared with any other department such as law enforcement, tax department and immigration.”

The census takers sign a confidentiality agreement, but there is no way of knowing how much such commitments are worth.

The census will however establish trends that characterize our community. The 2001 census showed for instance that an almost equal part of men and women (between 63 and 65 percent) were single, that people spent on average 20.3 percent of their income on rent and that 4.1 percent was illiterate. The school dropout rate was 38.4 percent and Middle Region was the district with the highest youth unemployment.


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