OriginsInsight Edition 11

Collecting Data on Cultural Background

Through the extensive range of experience and number of applications of Origins it is now very clear that cultural background plays a significant part in consumer behaviour and decision-making.  Increasingly, organisations seek to collect such data so they measure its impact, generate insight about how it affects their business and, perhaps, aim to improve the customer experience so that their needs can be more effectively met.

In the previous edition of OriginsInsight we discussed the various ways that culture can be defined.  This is discussed further in a new paper released this month by OriginsInfo.  In this short piece, we focus on some of the issues connected with the collection of such data.

Cultural indicators used in census data provide a valuable reference base for the whole or part of Australia. But there is no satisfactory way of using census data to assign cultural indicators to individuals in a list.  The only semi-practical way to achieve a comparison between the list population and the wider population, is to collect data through forms or surveys and to use an approximation of the questions asked in the census.

However, organisations choosing to collect cultural diversity data in this way enmesh themselves in the challenges of framing the questions, collating and classifying responses, and analysing and reporting in a statistically meaningful way.  The fact that response rates to forms and surveys of this kind rarely reach 50 percent and the inherent variability of data quality from multiple collectors means that the data is likely to be unrepresentative, of untested quality, and of limited benefit.

Most organisations do not collect data about cultural background, largely because they have insufficient reason to do so.  And few organisations are operationally set up to categorise and analyse the data in ways that maximise the value of having collected it in the first place.

In terms of customer engagement, requesting such data from an individual may damage the relationship between the individual and the organisation, because the request is often seen as intrusive, or the purpose is not transparent or sufficiently compelling.

Moreover, the Australian Privacy Principles (APPs),embedded within the recently amended Privacy Act, detail whether and how ‘personal information’ should be collected and managed. The APPs are also clear about the definition of ‘sensitive information’ which includes information about an individual’s “racial or ethnic origin”. A higher standard of management applies to ‘sensitive information’, and non-compliance runs the risk of incurring significant penalties.

Much of this is unfortunate because as suggested in the introduction, data on cultural background, when appropriately used, provides an evidence-base and invaluable insight into how well an organisation reflects Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities.  Such evidence informs management and government with priority areas for attention where the goal is to maximise advantages of inclusivity –for organisations, individuals, CALD communities and wider society.

Quite apart from the substantial privacy obligations, most organisations simply find the expense and logistics of collecting good quality data through application forms and surveys too difficult to justify.

Using Names as a Surrogate for Cultural Background

For most of us, the names we carry are a manifestation of the cultural identity with which our parents wished us to identify.

It is now generally accepted that a well-developed name recognition tool can provide a highly efficient and remarkably accurate view of the cultural diversity to be found within a list of individuals.  Name recognition offers a standardised, objective and valid alternative to direct collection.

Furthermore, the use of names as a surrogate for cultural background is not subject to the same privacy restrictions that apply to direct collection through forms and surveys.

In March 2014 the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) issued guidelines to assist organisations comply with the newly amended Privacy Act and, in particular, to help interpret the Australian Privacy Principles.

This guidelines state with reference to the matter of ‘racial or ethnic origin’:

“Information may be sensitive information where it unambiguously implies one of these matters.  For example, many surnames have a particular racial or ethnic origin, but that alone will not constitute sensitive information that necessarily indicates the racial or ethnic origin of an individual with that surname.” 

This statement removes any uncertainty about the privacy status of using name origin as an indicator of cultural background. More information

Origins is a market-leading name recognition tool that is widely used to measure the cultural dimensions of customers, employees and, in fact, any list of individuals.  The tool draws on substantial research over the past ten years.  Underpinning the product is a family name database of more than 2.5 million names, and a personal name database of almost 900,000 names.  The data has been compiled from a wide range of globally-sourced, publicly available data.

The Origins product has also been used to summarise the outcome of processing a de-identified file of more than15 million adults.  This enables any analysis to compare cultural diversity from a list of individuals with the cultural diversity of any standard area in Australia.  In this way, a user can assess how well the list of individuals reflects the ‘market’ from which the individuals are drawn.

This makes Origins a robust tool for measuring cultural diversity and considerably exceeds the levels of accuracy and representation that would be achieved through the collection of data from individuals using forms and surveys – and at the fraction of the cost of direct collection and ongoing maintenance.  But most importantly, it avoids the substantial overhead and risk of managing ‘sensitive data’ as prescribed by the recently amended Privacy Act.

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