Geodemographics Blog

Barry Leventhal: The history of the Census and Geodemographics Group (CGG)


It’s been 28 years since I founded the CGG – and it don’t seem a day too long! Here’s how we started, and some of our most memorable activities...

The group’s origins go back to the late 80s and the MRS Technical and Development Committee. I had joined the T & D, in order to provide updates on plans for the 1991 Census. In 1989, it was decided that the T & D would close, however its Chair suggested that tracking the Census should continue through the formation of an interest group. Therefore I started the Census Interest Group (CIG), with MRS support, and our first meeting took place that September.

I remember wondering, before the first session, whether there would be a sufficient number of issues to discuss for more than one or two meetings. However, I need not have worried – the Group is still going strong after 28 years!

In the mid 90s, the Group changed its name from the CIG to the CGG, following an MRS review – however its activities continued unchanged.

Although the CIG arrived too late to influence the design of the 1991 Census, we were able to obtain one innovative output from it – analysis by Lifestage groups. For this and other developments, we must thank Chris Denham, former head of Census Outputs at ONS, who worked tirelessly to extend access to the data. Sadly Chris passed away earlier this year – his obituary is here.

Back in the early 90s, there were just a few census users in the commercial sector and only limited documentation and guidance were available for new users. In June 1991, the CGG held its first seminar – a briefing on the 1991 Census for market researchers. The event proved so popular that it had to be moved to a larger venue and, to satisfy demand, the same seminar was run five times!

This seminar marked the start of a long series of conferences and seminars organised by the Group – see further details of CGG events.

One of the CGG’s greatest strengths has been its independence from the geodemographics market. This has meant that the Group can ask questions and undertake projects that would not be appropriate for geodems suppliers. One such question, posed in the mid 90s, was “Can geodemographics actually predict consumer behaviour in a small area, such as a town?” Members of the Group set about investigating this question and it led to a project which became known as the Luton Experiment. This project was carried out jointly with the Whitbread Group Market Research department which was based in Luton at that time. The experiment involved conducting a TGI-style survey on residents within 3 Acorn types in Luton, and measuring how consumption patterns differed between them. The results showed a strong association with the 3 types, and so geodemographics passed the test well.

Another major project, which began in the mid 90s and continues to this day, is Approximate Social Grade (ASG). As we all know, Social Grade is the ‘ABC1’ classification used throughout the research, marketing and advertising industries. For various reasons, it is infeasible for the Census to code respondents by Social Grade, however its questionnaire captures some predictive demographic variables – such as working status, occupation and supervisory status. Therefore, I asked ONS if they would be willing to derive ASG on the 2001 Census, by applying an algorithm developed by CGG members, and after careful consideration ONS agreed to my request.

The first algorithm took a great amount of investigation to develop, mainly by Corrine Moy and Erhard Meier – for further details, see here. The 2001 Census output included two ASG tables, at various geographical levels.

Corrine and her team rebuilt the algorithm for the 2011 Census, and the Census Offices produced a greater number of ASG outputs – see here.

And I’m delighted to report that ONS has agreed to produce ASG output again in the next Census. Although it’s still too early to build the 2021 algorithm, the Group is currently discussing preliminary work with ONS to improve its performance.

Over the years, CGG members have created some important census-related publications. These included guides to the 1991 and 2001 censuses and a paper on the long-term future of the census, published in 2011- see here.

In 2000, the CGG launched the Geodemographics Knowledge Base (GKB) as a searchable collection of websites for those interested in geographical data and analysis. The GKB came about at the suggestion of Peter Furness, who went on to manage its development. In recent years, the GKB has become home for a series of monthly keynote articles or blogs, written by experts from all sides of the information industry. You have been reading the latest example, and previous posts are available from the same web page.

More recently, the Group has launched social media initiatives such as the CGG Network on Linkedin and @MRS_CGG on Twitter.

Finally, looking to the future, it is clear that everybody recognises the increasing importance of data, and harnessing new sources – such as open data, big data, and administrative data –the census and geodemographics will benefit from this wealth of information. And the CGG will be well placed to advise the producers of information products and guide their users – long may it continue! 

About Barry Leventhal, Emeritus Chair of the CGG

Barry is a consultant statistician who has spent his career working with market research, geodemographics and database information. He is passionate about helping people to learn and extract benefit from the data they hold. In 2017, Barry was awarded the MRS Gold Medal to recognise a lifetime of exceptional achievement and his contribution to the research profession.

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Any views or opinions presented are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the MRS Census and Geodemographic Group unless otherwise specifically stated.

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