August 17: Counting the world’s population may seem a bit like counting the stars in the sky, but not if you know how to go about it the right way. And there are as many ways to do it as there are countries, the United Nations recently discovered at a four-day seminar attended by number-happy statisticians from 55 countries. The idea was to see how countries are using technology to make the census-taking exercises more manageable and accurate.

Counting the world in different ways
Counting the world in different ways [Illustration by Shinod AP]
The software technology leader of South East Asia, Singapore, carries out its census the cool way. It puts questionnaires on the Internet. For its census in 2000, Brazil used palm top computers and mobile phones to get data from the remotest parts of the Amazon. India for its 2001 census, used the television medium to spread the message of the census and its importance.

Turkey, on the other hand, has simpler methods to ensure that everyone is counted: the army sets up roadblocks all over the country! And in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, people coming forward to be counted get a lottery ticket, with the winner getting an apartment for free, as the prize…

In 1995, the UN started a mammoth 10-year exercise, to analyse the census systems of various countries and see how they could be made more efficient, so that even if technologies change, the basic efficiency of the census method remained.

One of the interesting facts that came to light at the seminar was that while people in developing countries are more willing to get themselves counted, citizens of developed countries, such as the USA, do not take kindly to “government-sponsored visits”.