It's hard to believe, but it was all the way back in December 2007 that I first wrote about the prospect of US arms company Lockheed Martin winning the contract to process data from the 2011 Census.
Now census day is almost upon us on Sunday and a growing number of people are far from happy. After all, Lockheed Martin makes Trident nuclear missiles, cluster bombs and fighter jets, processes data for the CIA and FBI and provided private contract interrogators for the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay. So what to do?
Lockheed Martin's census contract is worth about £150 million and whilst there may be ethical merits in taking a principled stance by boycotting the census, this won't hurt their profits - they get paid anyway. There could be some impact on local government funding if there is a mass boycott, although there's no sign of one and this argument is less compelling now that councils are implementing cuts based on little assessment of need or numbers. There is an outside chance too that you could receive a fine of up to £1000 for non-compliance, but there were only 38 prosecutions following the census in 2001. More importantly, there are probably far more rewarding things to do with your free time than worrying about a knock at the door from the census collector.
But this doesn't mean that, by taking a few simple steps, it isn't possible to make it as expensive as possible to process your census form and help to undermine Lockheed Martin's financial margins. Some examples I've read about include:
- Using the paper copy - don't fill in the form online.
- Obliterating completely bar codes (on every page), serial numbers and other codes on your form - like we used to do with the Poll Tax forms! These are used for electronic tracking so you would probably need to add a note saying "bar codes missing - please keep pages together" or they may think you haven't returned the form at all.
- Ensuring that information on your form must be keyed in by hand, which is a vastly more expensive process than high-speed computer scanning. You could stray outside the white boxes, make repeated corrections to written text or cross out answers if you mistakenly tick the wrong box (adding, "“Sorry, it should have been this one” in the margin). The Data Capture and Coding System used by Lockheed Martin cannot read these responses and they will have to be processed manually.
- Apparently, writing text upside down (i.e.. rotating the form upside down when you write entries) is likely to be extremely effective in slowing data processing. And you will still have completed the form!
Finally, you may wish to complete the following rather excellent 'Supplementary Questions' sheet [PDF] and send it back with your census form (free of charge, naturally)