Fill in the census (eventually)

August 9, 2016 § 1 Comment

I regret having to break this news, but your individual census data is just not that interesting. I’m sorry. It just isn’t.

The ability to link that data, in an aggregated way, across data sets held by different government agencies, or even the same data sets but over time, is what is interesting.

The government doesn’t care about your individual characteristics. It’s interested in people sort of like you. People who share some of your characteristics like age, income or ethnicity.

If you were a policy maker, or a funding body, a minister, public servant, or journalist, wouldn’t you want to know if (other things being equal):

  • Wealthy people are more likely to access mental health services than the poor? Or c-sections? Or student loans?
  • Home owners are more likely to be recipients of certain types of welfare payments than renters?
  • People who walk to work have fewer knee replacements? Or more skin cancer?
  • Youth in remote areas aren’t better educated than they were five years ago? Or they are, but only if they moved to a capital city?

I just made those up, but the point is: If you were responsible, wouldn’t you want to know if people’s lives improve over time, if payments and services go to those who need them, and if policy settings actually help people? We spend billions every year on things that are meant to help people, and we don’t really know who’s getting what, in which combination, or if it’s achieving anything.

You can get some of this information from surveys, but only from a small sample of the population, and only based on self-reported information rather than what products and services are actually being consumed.

You can get some of it from separate data sets held by government agencies, but not the kind of analysis that linked up data offers.

Say 5 per cent of 20-year-olds have a medical condition. We know how many because they have been treated for it by medical practitioners via the MBS. Say there’s an expensive drug prescribed to treat this condition. The drug is on the PBS.

Five years down the track, 5 per cent of 25-year-olds have this medical condition. Are they the same people? We don’t know! They might be. Without data linkage, we’ll never know. If the same people aren’t better after five years of government-subsidised treatment, isn’t this a problem? What if the first medical condition is gone but now they all have a different one? Surely that tells us something about this condition and those treatments and these patients.

Wouldn’t you want to know?



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