Tracking progress from the cradle to the grave

A fact that may surprise some New Zealanders is that their life is tracked and monitored by the government from the day they are born until the day they die.

Many Kiwis would likely oppose the introduction of a national identity number in the belief that it will enable the government to track them. Forget that argument – they do it anyway. But there is nothing ominous about the government collecting personal information about our citizens. The information is managed in a safe and secure way, and it is transforming the way population data is used for policy making and research.

We regularly provide government with information about ourselves

At various points in our life, we provide government agencies with personal information. At birth our parents are legally required to provide our personal details to the Department of Internal Affairs. To see a doctor, we need to register with a primary health organisation and provide details such as our place of residence and ethnicity. The list goes on.

Each of the government agencies with which we directly interact possesses an administrative data set with details about all individuals in New Zealand. The Ministry of Education has information about when we started and left school, entered tertiary education, and which qualifications we achieved. The Ministry of Social Development knows when we went on or off a benefit, received a student loan or allowance, had a community service card, or needed housing support. Immigration New Zealand knows when we leave and re-enter the country. IRD has information about our employment status and earnings, our family situation, and business activities.

Collectively, government agencies hold an incredible wealth of information about each resident, visitor, and person connected to New Zealand, and Stats NZ piece all this information together into a single mega database called the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI). Stats NZ goes further and adds in information collected about individuals in the census and other surveys. It is an astonishingly powerful data set for policy makers and researchers.

But should I be concerned about my privacy?

Absolutely not. Stats NZ goes to extreme lengths to ensure the data is safe. Personal identifying information is removed before researchers can use the information. There are strict protocols around the physical access to IDI data, and many hoops to jump through to make sure that only approved people can access the de-personalised information. Only research which is for the public good can be done using the IDI.

A powerful policy tool for government

The value of the IDI is that it contains information on so many aspects of life in New Zealand. And unlike most surveys which are just a snapshot in time, it has a long time series enabling researchers to observe the impacts of events or circumstances on our outcomes in life.

For example, policy makers can observe all individuals that committed crimes and go back through their life stages and identify the circumstances that might have contributed to their incarceration. Using this information, they can identify which individuals are at risk of committing crime and can plan interventions. They can identify exactly where in the country at-risk individuals are and target their interventions to the greatest source of need.

Health resources, new schools, skills development, and social assistance can all be better aware of community needs and respond with more appropriate support.

IDI will eventually give us an annual population census

Stats NZ has been working hard towards developing an annual census which utilises data from the IDI and has recently published the first iteration of the experimental administrative population census. At this stage, it provides an annual count of the New Zealand population from 2006 to 2020 with a few breakdowns including age, place of residence, and country of birth. Over time the number of variables will be increased, and Stats NZ will eventually no longer need to conduct the five-yearly population census which is enormously expensive and tedious for households.

Stats NZ has been ahead of the pack in its creative use of administrative data sets to provide statistics about its citizens. We welcome the new experimental series and look forward to the day when the administrative-based annual census becomes our primary official source of information about New Zealand’s residents. Better information, and maintaining the right protections around this data, can lead to swifter and substantially improved outcomes for communities across the country.

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