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EDITORIAL: Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar was justifiably proud as he released the roadmap for the 7th digital population and housing census because even though the exercise couldn’t take off in October 2021, as promised, the government has still been able to keep its word by conducting it within five years of the controversial 6th census.

The final results will be announced in December, which means the next elections, should they be held on time, would be conducted on its basis.

He also very rightly pointed out that modern technology should be used to conduct this exercise as frequently as possible because “without transparent and timely census, resource distribution among various areas of the country will not be ensured”.

That is why the result of the last census and the way in which it was carried out was such a shame. Both Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) rejected the result; the latter going so far as to say, quite publicly, that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government had “stabbed it in the back” by validating it.

The most important feature of the 7th census is that it will be the first one in the country that will be conducted digitally. And since employing digital technology, especially for the first time, can be a double-edged sword — in inexperienced and untrained hands it can actually be quite a liability — the government is doing the right thing by first going for a test pilot run; to check for risk management and disaster recovery.

This will be done in May-June and will be one of the most important parts of the process. This is after all a very costly exercise, running up to Rs10 billion, and failure to get it right will hurt more than just financially. Authorities seem confident enough that everything is secure, especially since the digital platform is not internet-based, but conclusive evidence will come around mid-year.

Now it’s going to be very important, as Asad Umar pointed out, for provincial governments to extend full cooperation as well. Such exercises only truly come full circle when all stakeholders are taken on board and together they work like a well-oiled machine.

Once the census is over and it’s time for the election, no provincial government should have to complain about not having the right data to distribute resources against. Optimal utilisation of limited resources is, at the end of the day, the central theme in all enterprise; more so in government. And without proper knowledge of demographic and population trends, resource distribution can resemble taking a shot in the dark.

Pakistan is already on the way to setting the standard of employing data analytics in the most important state functions.

It was because of the use of real time data that the country was able to take the lead in the whole world in tackling Covid, wave after wave, something acknowledged by the foremost international authority on pandemics and vaccines, Bill Gates, himself. Now this practice must be spread to all departments of government; and the census is perhaps the best place to start.

It is quite regretful that timely and proper census has never really been a priority in the past. Hopefully, this trend has already changed forever.

The economy is in a precarious situation. Real time data, which will help channel the little money there is to spare to the right places, can make the difference between riding out this storm and succumbing to it. The government should be given credit for doing what it can to correct the mistakes of the last census. Now all eyes will be on how successfully the 7th one will be carried out.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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