PRIME Minister Andrew Holness is urging Jamaicans to desist from treating with suspicion any move by Government to gather their vital personal data.
Holness, who was speaking on Wednesday at the launch of the 15th Population and Housing Census at the AC Marriott Hotel in St Andrew, said choosing not to divulge information is not a guarantee of privacy, and instead hinders the State from efficiently making critical policy decisions that impact the population.
"You may not see all that we are doing in the background but the Government has invested significant resources in the collection and storage of data, in protecting the data, and in putting in place the legal and institutional framework to protect your data. There is the belief that your privacy is guaranteed if you're anonymous, if you don't participate in the system. That is absolutely not the case. Your privacy is guaranteed because the laws of the country and the systems and institutions are in place to protect your data. That is what guarantees your privacy," Holness said.
The census is to be undertaken by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (Statin) from September 12 to December.
"This idea of a predatory Government that you should try to hide from is something that we need to dismiss from our society, and our thinking and our function…as politicians, they [the citizenry] look at us as only seeking to gain votes and popularity, but politicians are oftentimes also policymakers, especially if they form the executive of the country; and if we are going to make policy on behalf of the people, we can't just make policy on emotion, and what we feel is popular. We have to make policy on the facts," he added.
He pointed out, for example, that when the Government is seeking to budget for social housing programmes, it does not have information on the number of people who need the benefit.
"We really don't know," he said, noting that given that the sample frame is outdated, an accurate prediction of the numbers can't be made, and other metrics therefore have to be relied on.
"They [those metrics] are not the best source to guide policy, because it does help [but] it doesn't give us the true picture Once we have the data, then the politicians can sit down and [decide] if based on the data this is something that the Government can budget for, and eliminate this problem. Without the data, we are just shooting in the dark," he emphasised.
Subsequently, Holness said it is important that people embrace the census, and cooperate with the Statin workers who will be gathering the data.
"The Government isn't a predator. The Government isn't seeking to make your life harder. The Government wants to serve you better, we need to understand your needs and your conditions," he said.
Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke, who has portfolio responsibility for Statin, pointed out the data will often not be favourable to all.
"Sometimes when the data comes out, some of us don't like it, including parliamentarians, including Cabinet. Whether the data is on growth, or unemployment, or poverty — everybody wants the data that serves their particular interest, and Statin is often unfairly brought into that tension," he remarked, but stressed that as a signatory to the United Nations fundamental principles on the collection of official data, and being peer-reviewed by other countries over the years, there is objective data which shows that Statin is the leading statistical institute in the Caribbean.
Prior to the start of the census, the minister will also have to table in Parliament the census regulation and order, to codify the 2022 census into law.
Member of Parliament for St Andrew South Eastern, Julian Robinson, who spoke on behalf of Opposition Leader Mark Golding, assured that the Opposition was fully behind the census. He said although political representatives cannot participate in the activities, they can assist with encouraging residents to cooperate.
"It's very important that the country recognises that this is a national endeavour," he said.
Statin's last population estimate was 2.73 million.
Earlier this week, at a Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange, head of Statin Carol Coy pointed out that the Institute continues to do a population estimate in the intervening years between the census, so that an estimate of the population is always known.
She noted, however, that migration continues to be the weak link in the statistical data, so that the institute has to gather data from sources such as PICA, the embassies, and the Ministry of Labour.
"Migration is the thing, because you know Jamaicans, you go away on vacation [and] you don't come back, so it's difficult tracking those in the intervening years, [but] you make some estimates for it," Coy remarked.
Deputy director general at Statin, Leesha Delatie-Budair, said it should also be noted that although persons believe the population should be larger at this point, birth rates have been declining, while the death rate is increasing.
"You have to understand that population is dynamic. We triangulate [the data] from a number of different sources because we have to make sure that when we put out an estimate, we can stand behind it," she told our news team.
Speaking at the launch, Coy again urged Jamaicans and other people living in the island for at least six months as at September 12, to cooperate with its census takers.
Statin says it will be counting all people usually resident in the island, including people in the penal system, children's homes, and infirmaries, using tablets to input the data, rather than physical questionnaire sheets, as in previous years. Diplomatic personnel, tourists and persons staying in vacation homes, will not be counted. The census is not just a head count, but also gives social and demographic information, housing stock, and information on 'hard to count' populations.
The director general advised that preliminary (anonymised) results of the census will be available for the 2023/24 fiscal year.