In a Royal address, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos encouraged Omanis to provide the required information and to cooperate with the census staff to make the exercise a success. It was the first data collection in the country. The endeavour resulted in the earliest preliminary information on people with disabilities in the country. It was the beginning of a journey: putting together the profile of the nation.
Twenty-seven years later, the 2020 census will be the first-ever conducted primarily online. The stakes are high. It requires a more critically and creatively rational about how to reach and serve specific audiences. However, looking into the surveys carried out in the past in Oman, there is a steady use of cutting-edge high tech innovations.
Why should we talk about the census? Simply because the media have the role to inform adequately the public. The media, supposedly, would provide clear and simple information along with explanations on the importance of the census. More, it would enlighten how the answers matter to policymakers and citizens.
Over 50 graduating university students discussed aspects of the census. It came out that they have generalised ideas for the purposes of the survey. For them, the census helps to “know the number of job-seekers and the number of vacancies available, including information on finding ways to solve the gap”.
The shared understanding was that the information could also reveal the need for services in areas such as health, schools and shops.
On the advantages and limitations of a primarily electronic census, the speed in which results are obtained, besides lower costs and efforts are positive. Reaching remote areas was one of the students’ concerns. However, since the second census, in 2003, enhanced technologies such as satellite images, GPS, Geographic Information System, and other high-end technological tools have been used to access the population in remote areas.
Historical literature points to some Gulf states laying the foundations for statistical data collection from the 1940s. According to Nadeya Sayed Ali Mohammed in her book Population and Development of Arab Gulf States: The Case of Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait, Bahrain’s first census was in 1941, Kuwait’s in 1957, and Oman’s in 1993. The third census in Oman, in 2010, was within 7 years, instead of the normal frequency of 10 years. Apparently, it was the initial chapter to be in conjunction with the neighbouring Gulf states.
The relatively high oil prices during the 1970s and 1980s ensured that the revenues were sufficient to stimulate economic growth. However, when oil prices went down in 1985-86, exporting countries felt their fiscal balances under pressure. Since the 1990s, governments across the Gulf states have become increasingly concerned with the employment of their young nationals. Also, most Gulf states have reduced their generous welfare subsidies, and all have become concerned about the lack of diversification of their economic base.
Back to my point: why should we care to share private information? That is when the media have an important role. Telling people what they should know is not enough. Many people can associate the census with controversy, such as undocumented people. Many times, people don’t pay attention until the information can be relevant to their needs — on how the information can play a role in their daily lives. People share freely private information on social media but when it comes to census, people are skeptical.
The role of the media in addressing the importance of the census to the benefit of the population is very important. Media campaign emphasising on what and not the why is shallow. Not everyone is aware or understand how the data is used. In this, journalists have a bigger role and responsibility.