FEATURE19 February 2020

Making people visible

x Sponsored content on Research Live and in Impact magazine is editorially independent.
Find out more about advertising and sponsorship.

Features Impact Middle East and Africa Public Sector Trends

Ghana is preparing for a paperless census as it looks to collect better data and harness innovation to tackle inequality. By Katie McQuater.


This spring, Ghana will conduct its once-a-decade population and housing census using tablets instead of paper questionnaires for the first time. It will join a handful of other African countries moving to handheld tablets for electronic data collection in their surveys as the country looks to drive a modernisation agenda.

There are various benefits of collecting data electronically using computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI) devices – it is faster and allows those working on the census to begin analysing its findings more quickly. “Data can be collected in a more unified fashion, it can be validated at the time of capture and transmitted far more quickly than it takes to move paper surveys around the country,” explains Sophie Elfar, who is part of the Office for National Statistics’ international development team and strategic adviser to Ghana Statistical Service (GSS).

“Ghana has used handheld tablets for smaller-scale surveys, but this is the first time they’re going to be used for a population and housing census. They’ve done nothing on this scale before,” says Elfar.

The census is critical for Ghana’s public policy planning, particularly informing national and international development partners, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities working in the country. Census data helps provide the evidence they need to highlight disparities and marginalised groups so that they can optimise their interventions effectively and target the right people. 

“Ghana is a middle-income country, but you see huge inequality and deprivation on the streets every day, food insecurity, homelessness, inadequate housing, slums and informal settlements almost everywhere. All of this contributes to the continuation of poverty,” says Elfar. “Without good data, there’s a real risk that marginalised groups become invisible and they’re not included in the national development programmes, which is essentially who they’re aimed at. Without good data, they don’t have a voice.”


The challenges of conducting the nation-wide survey are manifold. First, there is a particular challenge in terms of timing, with a tight three-week period to undertake all census activities. If the timing is incorrect, there is a risk it could run into the rainy season, meaning some communities would become unreachable, undermining the representation of the census.

There are other logistical requirements, with field staff travelling to many communities on boats, canoes, mopeds and pedal bikes, as well as walking long distances – and when they do reach the households, these are defined differently from how they would be in the UK. “Not all people are in household structures or institutions, so Ghana will also be speaking to rough sleepers, which is hugely challenging because obviously you can only speak to those people you encounter during fieldwork activities,” says Elfar.

A general mistrust of officials and a lack of awareness of GSS creates further hurdles and means additional work is required to build trust with people and assure them they won’t face reprisals from taking part in the census – such as tax rises or having their home removed.

“A lot of sensitisation work is required to prepare citizens so they trust the officials who are coming to collect the data and understand why we need their information and why it’s important to them as individuals.”

The majority of the funding for the population and housing census is coming from the government of Ghana, but it excludes the procurement of the 70,000 tablets needed to conduct the census digitally. So GSS is working with international development partners, including the United Nations Population Fund and other national statistics institutes in Africa, to determine whether they can obtain tablets from them and then return them after the Ghana census.

GSS is also working with ONS and partners to use technologies such as satellite imagery. “That’s allowing us to look at the landscape and topology of Ghana and see whether the sizes of our fieldforce work areas for the census are the right sizes,” says Elfar.

A different lens

The UK can learn a lot from African approaches to census-taking and data collection, from adopting more fluid, flexible approaches to applying well-tested models in new contexts. “Africa is on a very different timescale to the UK so there’s a lot more flexibility and organic growth in plans and being able to respond to changes in the country as they happen and because everything isn’t locked down and planned several years ahead of time,” says Elfar.

The biggest insight, however, is not just limited to census-taking. “ONS has a wealth of expertise and knowledge in so many different areas, whether it be environmental, economic or social statistics. What we’re finding when we bring out these experts who are the font of knowledge, who have worked in their fields for many, many years, is that when they apply their knowledge in Africa they’re challenged to apply the same models in a very different context. It’s actually growing our own statisticians and economists, because it’s allowing them to look at the world from a different lens.

“Also, Africans are very open and ask a lot of questions, and in the UK sometimes we just go along with things. It’s really nice to hear the organic growth of knowledge through questions.” 

  • The Office for National Statistics (ONS) international development team leads technical assistance by ONS to build the capacity of statistical systems in developing countries
  • Technology is playing a major role in the 2020 round of African censuses – more than 50% of countries plan to conduct a digital census, according to an assessment by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA)
  • In 2010, Ghana’s last census recorded the population as 24.6m, but it is now estimated to be 30.4m
  • The Greater Accra Metropolitan Area is the 11th largest metro area in Africa, with around four million people.

This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of Impact.