People in the 26m households across England and Wales will soon give the government a glimpse into their lives, as the census makes its once-a-decade appearance.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has kicked off a multi-million-pound marketing drive, created by Bray Leino and spanning TV, outdoor, experiential and PR, to alert the population to 'Census Day' on 27 March.
The campaign, which uses the line 'Help tomorrow take shape', features origami representations of objects such as buses and hospitals to illustrate the part that census information plays in the planning of public services.
The authorities are not the only users of the mass data-sweep, however. Marketers, whether they realise it or not, often use information based on census results. Richard Tolley, interim marketing director of Taylors of Harrogate, says retail and service-based businesses find census data 'particularly useful'.
This is the world of 'micromarketing' - the targeting of communications to individuals based on their immediate local circumstances, and where talk of the usefulness of the census for marketers arouses strong feelings.
Keith Dugmore, chairman of data lobbyists the Demographics User Group (DUG), says that census questions about respondents' occupation and car ownership enable marketers to profile the nation's most affluent and poorer areas.
Key data resource
DUG members, including banks and retailers such as Boots and Marks & Spencer, rely on such data to inform store-location decisions and micromarketing. Census data also forms the basis of neighbourhood classification tools such as ACORN.
Debrah Harding, deputy director-general of the Market Research Society, argues that there is unlikely to be 'another single source that allows both social and market researchers to conduct analyses in such a precise and efficient way' as the census.
For marketers, the sheer scale of the census, as the single biggest collection of data on the UK population, is its USP. For some, however, the fact that the data is gathered only once every 10 years is its key weakness. The current population size of England and Wales is likely to be published in the next year, but it will be about another two years before more detailed data, used for commercial purposes, becomes available.
Data suppliers such as Acxiom and Experian source their own consumer data more frequently, and do so with marketing in mind. For these reasons, Joanne King, European marketing director at insight company Acxiom, believes the commercial data market 'offers a greater depth of information to business.' She adds: 'It can provide a complete picture of consumers across the country based not just on geospatial information, but also vital attributes such as financial situation.'
King says much data from the census is obsolete, from a marketing point of view, by the time it is released, but Dugmore disagrees. 'Stores like Boots and Sainsbury's use (census) data that may be old, as it gives complete coverage on questions such as where office workers buy stuff at lunchtime.'
John Rae, a director at data consultancy CACI, contends that being able to break down the habits of consumers by their postcode, for example, can retain its value for years as 'streets don't change very fast'. Importantly, he adds that 'all the other data sets need the census as a calibration'.
This may be the last time there is a debate over the merits of the census, with speculation rife that this year's will be the last of its type. The ONS has established a project called 'Beyond 2011' to explore options for population-data collection, although it insists that no final decision on scrapping the traditional census has been made.
The census is expected to cost £500m to carry out, but, as most of the resultant data is published free, little of this can be recouped. Extra tables can be requested at a typical cost of about £150 each, but even CACI bought only one extra data set from the last census - to glean the number and location of those who stated 'Jedi' as their religion.
With brands reluctant to freely share their data with the government due to privacy issues, and the information on social networking sites too incomplete to be useful, some will argue that marketers should mourn the passing of the census if 2011 proves to be its swansong.
1801 - The year of the first census across England, Scotland and Wales.
£500m - Projected cost of 2011 census.
52m - Population of England and Wales at last census.
2.5% - Population growth of England and Wales between 1991 and 2001.