An occasional email letter from Griffith Feeney

Letter Number 11, 31 May 2017

Information and Communication, Space and Time:
The Architecture of Demographic Data

Information and communication. Space and time. We are used to seeing these pairs of words together, but why consider the four collectively? Because they are the four fundamental elements of producing demographic data.

Being demographers, we are interested in the number of births that occur in a population each year. The families of these births know the essential facts—that a child was born, when it was born, the sex, and so on.

But this information is dispersed over the entire national territory—over space. That the information exists is irrelevant. It needs to be brought together in a central location for processing. Only then can we count how many births occurred.

Centralization requires communication. We are used to thinking of communication as something that occurs between people, but communication may also be a matter of moving information from one geographic location to another.

Civil registration systems collect information distributed over the entire national territory and communicate it to a central location. This takes time. How much time depends on the means of communication.

Communication on paper is slow, weeks or months. Electronic communication is fast, seconds or minutes. Both require infrastructure. A postal system. A mobile phone or computer network. Creating this infrastructure is a fundamental development task.

What is true of civil registration systems is equally true of population censuses and surveys. For the traditional paper census, communication is logistics—distributing blank questionnaires throughout the national territory and then collecting completed questionnaires in a single location for processing. But it is also the communication in the more familiar sense, between the enumerator and the respondent.

For data collection using digital gadgets, communication will be electronic. The potential advantages are huge, but so potentially are the problems. How to deal with remote areas not reached by the network? Will the network handle the load of tens of millions of interview results transmitted over a brief period? How to solve problems when the information is invisible without the aid of elaborate computer hardware and software?

Understanding how demographic data is produced requires understanding the four fundamental elements—information, communication, space, and time.

The United Nations Statistics Division published the first international standard for civil registration systems, the Handbook of Vital Statistics Methods, in 1955. It has the virtue of brevity, as well as a precision sometimes lacking in later publications. Principles and Recommendations for a Vital Statistics System: Revision 3 was published in 2013.

The DSITL has been re-conceived as a brief communication on demographic, statistical, and IT issues. Longer pieces, such as those that appeared in many past letters, will be announced here as they are produced.

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DEMOGRAPHY, STATISTICS, and INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY is an occasional email letter from Griffith Feeney, Ph.D., an international consultant based in Scarsdale, New York. This and past letters are available at

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