How Indonesia is running a census in a pandemic

By Yun Xuan Poon and Kankon Sen

The national statistics agency is using new methods to collect the data that will be important for planning its pandemic response and national policies.

Albert Einstein famously said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes coming up with solutions.

Indonesia has spent ten years preparing to take its census, but the plans have now changed. This will also be the first time it collects this information using both digital and physical methods. The government began preparations for the census in 2018, but what it didn’t expect was the pandemic.

How has Indonesia been able to carry out the collection amidst such straining circumstances? GovInsider spoke to Dr Muchammad Romzi, Director of Statistical Information System, and Ari Nugraha, Deputy of Methodology and Information Statistics, at Statistics Indonesia (BPS) to find out.

Conducting a census amidst Covid

To promote the online census survey, the agency released videos on social media to raise awareness, ranging from snazzy TikTok-style videos to short clips of influential figures filling in the census. It also created video instructions to explain the meaning of specific terms on the survey and how to fill in the form.

The online survey started in the middle of March this year, and had received 51 million responses by June. “This is a good result for us because this is the first time we conducted the census online,” says Romzi. For citizens who did not complete the online form, BPS will conduct door-to-door interviews from September.

During door-to-door interviews, census officers will use their smartphones to fill in the data electronically. For paper forms, BPS will use an image-to-text scanning tool to make the data input process more efficient, Romzi shares.

The census is useful for population projections, and forms the base for national policies. "All aspects of planning are mainly based on population data," said BPS Deputy for Social Statistics, Margo Yuwono.

Accurate data on the people is also crucial amidst the pandemic. Data from BPS is fed into the national disaster management agency, which is responsible for planning the country’s Covid-19 response. “BPS helps the government in capturing the social demographic impact of Covid-19 in Indonesia,” Romzi says. This includes examining the impact that the pandemic has had on businesses.

BPS is working on common guidelines to standardise data use across the government. Data collected across different sources has often been inconsistent and inaccurate, National Planning Minister Dr. HC. Ir. H. Suharso Monoarfa told GovInsider. “If the population data is not good, then all aspects of planning will be less than optimal,” said Margo.

Dabbling in big data

The agency is combining data from different sources to get a deeper understanding of thr impact of the pandemic. BPS already consolidates geolocation data from telcos and census data to produce its tourism statistics. Together with the Ministry of National Development Planning (Bappenas), it is developing a system to study the movement of people in metropolitan areas.

“We’re crawling data from crowdsourced data from market places, job sites, online booking sites, flight data and so forth for estimating prices, hotel occupancy, job vacancy and so on,” Romzi says. This data can be helpful in guiding policymakers in the country.

To make the most of big data, BPS’s data processing and data analytics platforms need an overhaul, Romzi says. The agency is looking into AI and machine learning to help with this. “We need to make a good partnership with other data providers like the private sector,” he adds.

Another challenge is that there are no ready pools of big data sources, since there are no regulations for them yet. BPS is drafting a set of regulations on submitting data for big data purposes, as well as the IT infrastructure needed, it announced on Twitter.

Building capacity

BPS is eager to learn from other countries to improve the nation’s data. It sought guidance from the Australian Bureau of Statistics to create the online data collection system for the population census, Ari says.

It is also working closely with the Data Science Campus at the UK Office for National Statistics to develop a new Masters programme that will grow data science skills across government, wrote the Campus’s website. The Campus shared their experience with implementing big data and how they changed statistical methodology to allow for that.

With so much citizen data in their hands, security is a concern. BPS has made efforts to tighten data security, “from the process of data collection until the dissemination”. For instance, the agency uses authentication and access controls for its databases and applications to ensure their data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

BPS’s cybersecurity measures are supported by the National Cyber and Crypto Agency (BSSN) in Indonesia. Indonesia is one of the most vulnerable countries to cyber attacks, wrote The Diplomat. BSSN was set up in 2018 to tackle a range of cyber threats facing the country, from hacks targeting government agencies, to fake news. BPS also learns from private data security firms to bolster their defences, Romzi shares.

In a country as big as Indonesia, it’s crucial that policymakers have an accurate, detailed understanding of the people they serve. BPS will continue to use tech and big data to ensure that every citizen is accounted for.