The value of small area data from the Census

Beyond Greenspace relies heavily on small area census data, as do many health geography research projects. Given current discussions around whether or not the UK will ever have another census (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/about-ons/what-we-do/programmes—projects/beyond-2011/index.html), it seems timely to reflect on how we are using these datasets for this project and related work, and where we might be without them.

Others have written elegantly on why we need a census – notably Danny Dorling in this recent blog post for the Policy Press (http://policypress.wordpress.com/2013/01/11/why-do-we-need-a-census/). In the case of our project, we need to geographically relate environmental conditions to human health and wellbeing outcomes. In order to do this, understanding the geography of our population at high resolution is fundamental. Some of the planned research can proceed without these small area population data – for example we will be linking small area environmental measures to individual level data from the British Household Panel Survey/Understanding Society (https://www.understandingsociety.ac.uk/). But there is huge value in us being able to link environmental conditions to small area census data on health, socio-economic status and so on.

These data allow us to map the health of the population for very small areas across the whole country, and to relate these health outcomes to environmental conditions at population level. They also permit us to investigate variation in health by population socio-economic status. One of the most interesting aspects of recent research into the benefits of natural environments for health is that the benefits may be disproportionately felt by populations in more socio-economically deprived areas, and so may serve to provide resilience against health inequalities (see references below). These analyses depend upon small area measures of socio-economic status – such as the Indices of Deprivation (nice visualisation here: http://casa.oobrien.com/booth/) – which depend significantly on the detailed small area data produced by the census.

An important issue with the kind of research we’re carrying out for Beyond Greenspace, is that we are looking for what are (probably) relatively small effects, but spread across large proportion of the population. So the effect on an individual’s health of living near good quality natural environments might be small, compared to say the effects of smoking or being unemployed. But if these effects are widespread across large numbers of people, the total public health impact may be very large. Small area data from the census is an incredibly powerful way for us to properly understand the scale of these public health impacts, and none of the proposed replacements are likely to fulfil the same function.

References

Mitchell R, Popham F. Effect of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: an observational population study. Lancet. 2008;372(9650):1655-60.  Pubmed link

Wheeler BW, White M, Stahl-Timmins W, Depledge MH. Does living by the coast improve health and wellbeing? Health Place. 2012;18(5):1198-201. Pubmed link

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