Scotland’s Census Conference - 2014

On June 25th National Records of Scotland (NRS), sponsored by the British Society for Population Studies, held a conference on Scotland’s Census at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.

The event was open to all users, and potential users, of Scotland’s Census data. Over 100 delegates attended the event, coming from a host of organisations across Scotland (and the rest of the UK) including councils, academic institutions, third sector bodies and analytical services.

Image of Lindsay Paterson presenting on Gaelic

Lindsay Paterson presenting on Gaelic and the census

As well as reflecting on what the census has been able to show us to-date, a key aim of the conference was to share information on how census data is being used now, and the plans for its use in the future. The conference also provided the opportunity to discuss potential collaboration, where that could help to further promote understanding and get the most out of the census for Scotland and its people.

The conference programme highlights the presenters and topics discussed.

Opening, keynote speaker and outputs so far

Tim Ellis, Registrar General for Scotland and Chief Executive of NRS started the day by welcoming delegates and introducing Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs. Ms Hyslop opened the conference by emphasising the importance of evidence and data to government and how evidence can be used to debunk myths such as around the levels of migration in Scotland. She also spoke about the value of the census in this regard and how understanding the uses of the Scotland’s Census will feed into the future of the census and requirements for the 2021 Census.

The conference was fortunate to have Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, as its key note speaker. Sir Ian spoke about the birth and historic motivations for the Census, before addressing its present day uses in targeting investment and spending. Sir Ian also highlighted the importance of having small area data available, and his views as to how administrative data sources could play a future role in further improving the accuracy of census data. He concluded that the census remains the biggest and best source of information for an evidence based society, and praised the 2011 Census as the ‘best ever’.

Kirsty MacLachlan of National Records of Scotland (NRS) followed this with an overview of the census data released so far touching on some of the key changes seen since 2001.

Uses of the census

The conference heard a variety of presentations across the morning and afternoon covering different uses of census data.

Andrew Smith (University of Glasgow) and Laurence Brown (Manchester University) spoke about their work tracking the mix of ethnicities across Scotland, as well as the overall increasing ethnic diversity and population in Scotland.

Lindsay Paterson and Fiona O’Hanlon (University of Edinburgh) spoke about how census is the main source of data for studying Gaelic language use in Scotland. They explained their plans for using census data to chart the distribution of Gaelic language use across Scotland, and how the patterns of usage and competence has changed over time, including the possibility of studying this at an individual level.

David Walsh (Glasgow Centre for Population Health) showed how census data is used to map and understand health inequalities both within Scotland and with the rest of the UK. His fascinating comparison between Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow showed the numerous factors contributing to inequalities, and how census data was vital for understanding the economic and demographic influences on health

Simon Whalley (Beacon Dodsworth) presented detail about how Beacon Dodsworth use census data to segment and produce area profiles. This helps inform the decision making of various customers that they serve and allows them to target products and services more effectively.

Finally, Graeme Gainey (Edinburgh City Council) demonstrated how census output area data could be aggregated to produce ‘heat’ maps for population and characteristic data. By highlighting ‘hot-spots’ through these maps it was possible to see where different local services and investment would be needed most. The work also allowed interesting comparisons across Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Parallel sessions

Delegates were also offered the chance to vote with their feet with a choice of three sessions covering the broad topics of: the methodology of the census; accessing census data; and using census data in linkage and research projects.


Celia Macintyre and Ali Greig (NRS), explained some of the work done on quality assurance and dealing with non-responses to the census, including the checks and analysis procedures used.

Felicity Rollings (NRS), took delegates through the measures taken to reduce the risk of disclosure when producing the detailed census data outputs, including the methods used for record swapping.

Accessing the data

Ed Turnbull (NRS) explained to delegates how they could use the Census Data Explorer tool on the Scotland’s Census website to access the data they wanted, including producing graphs, maps, and tables.

Justin Hayes (UK Data Service), demonstrated how the InFuse tool can be used to easily access aggregate data at a UK level from the census, and the support his team offers for making census data easy to use and understand.

Data linkage/ research

Susan Carsley (Scottish Longitudinal Survey- SLS) explained the work of the SLS, and how it can be used to understand changes and impacts on the population over time, including a whole range of topics such as linkage with health and education data.

Anne Douglas (University of Edinburgh), demonstrated how SHELS (Scottish Health and Ethnicity Linkage Study) has been able to investigate the differences in health outcomes of different ethnic groups. This results of this research will be used to inform initiatives and interventions to address the health inequalities that it was able to uncover.

History of the census

In the afternoon, delegates were treated to a talk by a veteran of censuses in the UK, Ian White. His presentation covered over 200 years of history of the census in Scotland and the UK more widely, and showed how the methods of collection and processing as well as the questions asked by the census, have evolved over time.

Workshop discussions

The final session of the day saw delegates participate in workshop discussions to shared their experiences and plans for census data. They also discussed ways to improve collaboration and what support was needed for how census data is accessed and used. As seen in the following picture, delegates were happy to offer examples, views and suggestions.

Image of one of the spider-grams completed in the workshop groups

An example of one of the spider-grams completed in the workshop groups

The information provided in the workshop will help NRS in its work promoting the benefits and uses of census so that Scotland continues to get the most out of this rich and detailed data source. As outlined on the Using Census Data section of our website, we are very keen to hear from users far and wide about their uses of the data. This includes you, so please do take time to consider and offer us detail of your current uses or plans. Details and a pro-forma are available in that section.

Closing and thanks

Altogether, there were 20 speakers throughout the day, exploring the past, present and future of Scotland’s Census and how census data can be used to inform decisions and improve our society. The conference concluded with Tim Ellis, the Registrar General for Scotland summarising the day’s events and reminding delegates that NRS was eager to hear plans for using census data and how we can make this easier and also help facilitate more research and collaboration.

Feedback from the day

Formal feedback was sought by NRS on the event and will be used when we consider and arrange future events. However, some comments offered through that route, via Twitter (#ScotCensusConf), and also more informally included:

“really enjoyed the conference … presentations were excellent.”

“most enjoyable day, and impressive in its range of contributors”

“The venue, organisation, speakers and contents were all top class.”

“Leith has one of the highest 'local' population densities in the UK. A change to 20 years ago! Good example of data mapping”

“Fascinating talk by Ian White on the history of the census”

“Very amusing and thought provoking talk from David Walsh, Glasgow centre for population health”