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John Pullinger, a census statistician
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Things you only know if you’re a census statistician

James FitzGerald

…according to John Pullinger, 59.

London is ideal for a census dry run

‘This autumn we’re conducting a rehearsal for the 2021 census, and Hackney and Tower Hamlets are taking part. They present a perfect set of challenges: they’re hard-to-count areas with people hidden behind building entry phones or living in high-rise blocks. It’s quite tricky to reach everyone physically, which is one reason why the next census will mostly happen online.’

Expert information is more crucial than ever

‘We conduct the census so that discussions can be based on real evidence. For instance, people talk a lot about the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets – but the borough’s white communities are actually considerably bigger. The census gives us that perspective. Without the information, it’s just anecdotes and prejudice.’

The next census will ask about gender identity

‘For the first time, we’ll be asking voluntary questions about sexual orientation and gender identity. It might have been contentious 20 or 30 years ago, but society has changed. In fact, people are most sensitive about questions on income. Understanding poverty is really important, but we can only collect what people want us to.’

Statistics can be fun, honest

‘In 2011 we recorded 21,000 Jedi Knights in London. The religion question lets you say whatever you want, and if that gets people interested, I don’t mind a bit of fun. But questions on things like qualifications and work are vital: they help everybody provide your area with better services.’

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