The upcoming census will garner new information on damp and mouldy housing reportedly causing 1600 New Zealand deaths every year - possibly helping to solve the problem.
Along with a new set of online forms to spur at least 70 per cent of New Zealanders to respond to the census digitally, every census (usually held at five-year intervals) poses questions of national and social importance on issues tracked over time.
Census general manager for 2018, Denise McGregor, says one of the most important new questions in the March 6 census concerns housing and heating in New Zealand.
"Housing quality can affect health," she says, "and consultation ahead of our final decision about content for the census indicated strongly that high priorities would be questions on mould, dampness and access to basic amenities like cooking facilities, electricity, or a bath or shower."
Alongside that, questions on how homes were heated would provide a clearer picture, changing the emphasis from previous focus on fuels used to the method of heating and appliances used.
Knowing more about damp and mould issues will help government agencies address a problem which some reports say cause the death of 1600 people every winter, mostly from respiratory and circulatory illness - underlined by University of Otago public health professor Philippa Howden-Chapman in her 2015 book Home Truths: Confronting New Zealand's Housing Crisis.
She wrote she was often embarrassed by the reaction of overseas audiences when she talked about New Zealand's housing and health problems derived from damp and cold homes, including the high winter mortality rate.
McGregor says while Stats NZ do not act directly on information gathered, they ensure good data is available to the people who can.
Next year's census is also exciting for her team as they are aiming for that goal of 70 per cent of people taking part online.
Instead of the familiar census collectors knocking on every door in the country, McGregor says Kiwis will be sent an access code which will enable them to participate digitally.
Households that do not respond online can request paper forms or will be visited by census field teams, using newly developed software to connect with those that have not yet taken part.
Census information helps determine how government funding is spent in the community, assisting decisions about services needed, such as hospitals, kōhanga reo, schools, roads, public transport and recreational facilities. It is also used by councils, community groups, iwi, and businesses to plan for the future, making decisions on issues affecting all New Zealanders.
"The census needs to reflect the changing nature of society and we have to balance that with being able to compare data over time and track trends," says McGregor.
That is the reason for questions on dampness and heating, with a decision being made not to ask questions on coldness in homes: "In trials, we asked about coldness but responses varied according to personal preferences - obviously we all know some people feel the cold more than others," says McGregor.
"We also discovered responses to coldness questions were highly correlated to those on dampness - suggesting only one is needed to measure housing quality. Dampness, for example, is much easier for people to assess; there is less subjectivity involved."
McGregor says other questions of national significance include how people travel to educational establishments and to work, clearly of interest to authorities assessing travel patterns and commuting.
Stats NZ have conducted three online trials to test responses and systems - and are confident strong security measures will keep all data private and protected.
"Our online security and our system as a whole is really robust," says McGregor. "It has to be - the census information we collect every five years indicates how our country has changed over time.
"So it's really valuable. Information from questions like those on damp and mould, how our households and families are structured or our educational qualifications is important to us as a nation to help us make key decisions.
"It's all about the quality of the information too - the better the quality, the more everyone using it can rely on it to address significant issues. The move to online is helping to increase that quality of data.
"We can't absolutely say that, in the future, 100 per cent of people will take part in the census digitally," says McGregor, "as there may always be some people who live without the internet.
"But clearly this is the way of the future."
Census down the ages
• 1891 - a small card was created for every person in NZ so tables could be produced
• 1920s - automatic punching, sorting and counting machines used
• 1962 - first census computer purchased
• 1996 - NZ second country in the world to use image scanning to process census data
• 2006 - 7 per cent take part in census online
• 2013 - 35 per cent take part digitally