Public Engagement in the Arts and Humanities: Using co-design methods to engage young people in Census 2021

In this post, we hear from Adrian Hickey (Ulster University) about his public engagement project – Our Census: Using Co-Design to engage young people in Census 2021 – which was supported by the AHRC-ESRC joint fund ‘Engaging the Public in Census 2021’. This project worked with 18-24 year olds in Northern Ireland to design a prototype of a web platform – RISE – that encourages young people to engage in the Census continuously over time.

While Northern Ireland is 20 years into a peace process, the legacy of the Troubles is still visible in the political representation in the Northern Ireland Assembly. For the generation that grew up in a peaceful society, the partisanship on display in the Assembly is a turn off to engagement with government. Numerous news articles report that this 18-24 year olds are fed up with Northern Ireland politicians (BBC) and don’t see the point in voting (Irish Times). As a result, is difficult to engage young people in the Census because they see it as an extension of the Northern Ireland Assembly which they feel detached from.

Empowerment through Co-Design

As an information design researcher, I believe that the goal of design as a discipline is to make a better future. My project – ‘Using Co-Design to engage young people in Census 2021’ –  applied information design to the engagement problem to create a prototype of a web platform called RISE which would improve young people’s engagement in the Census and create a  better future for them. Against the context of young people feeling alienated from politics in Northern Ireland, it was important to use an empowering design method called ‘Co-design’. Co-design encouraged the young people to participate in the design process which engaged them in each design decision to develop a prototype that reflected their needs and requirements.

The Design Sprint

In order to co-design a prototype with young people we used a specific approach developed by Google Ventures called ‘The Design Sprint’. This approach was created to allow businesses to get from design problem to prototype as fast as possible and to envisage products and solutions without wasting money and resources. For our project, it provided us with a structure to rapidly share ideas, make decisions quickly and deliver a prototype in just five days.

Each day of the design sprint has a specific purpose. The sprint begins with a question which needs to be solved over the five days. Our sprint question was: “How can we use Census data to engage 18-24 year olds?” As we progressed through the five days the exploration of the sprint question revealed new insights into the problem. Each day of the sprint is explained at

You’ll find us on Instagram

Co-design allows participants to envisage a design solution bespoke to them. During the design sprint the young people designed a way to drive users to the Census website via Instagram adverts. This occurred organically and was not driven by me or the facilitators. They sketched a set of pop culture adverts that asked a question relating to the Census. (See Image 1) This approach to the problem revealed that young people are not being engaged on platforms relevant to them, nor in a tone of voice that they find engaging or interesting. With limited time, only the first idea made it to the final prototype. (See Image 2). It is easy to see how the other ideas would translate and the goal of the advert is clear – to drive users to the Census website.

Image 1: early sketches for Instagram adverts
Image 2: fully realised Instagram advert leading to RISE

“The Census is about where you are, not where you want to be”

Through the exploration and definition phases of the research it emerged that young people felt that the Census didn’t relate  to their relatively fast paced lifestyles, especially in education, employment, and housing, as it captures only a moment in time. By the time the next Census takes place they expect to be completely different people, with different jobs and in different lives. For that reason they were attracted to the idea of a ‘rolling Census’. A rolling Census continually collects data from citizens. The young people could see how a digital platform which allowed you to amend your Census data as you progress through life would be more accurate and continually updated. This idea manifested itself in the design of the registration page for the RISE platform, a new web platform where the user’s ‘sign-up’ data becomes their Census data (See Image 3) Therefore if you get a new job, move house etc. you update your profile information which essentially updates the Census. This approach reflects the live relationship with data these young people experience every day. They don’t understand why there would be a 10-year gap in something which decides where important resources go.

Image 3: your census data is your sign-up data

“We do care about politics, but if you say MLA, I am gone”

Throughout the design sprint the relationship between young people, political representatives and how the Census data is used was continually discussed. These discussions revealed a massive disconnect between the young people and the politicians, similar to the news articles referenced above. When thinking about a Census platform and the data it would hold, the young people designed a way for the platform to engage them about topics they care about. (See images 4, 5, and 6)

Images 4-6 (left to right): learn about climate change; vote on local climate issues; see the vote results

Revisiting the context I outlined at the beginning of this blog post, is it any surprise that on these screens, (Images 4,5 and 6) the young people have essentially designed a form of digital democracy that circumvents politicians (MLA’s), party politics and all the baggage that goes with that? These young people envisage a future that engages them in political issues on an individual level directly on their personal devices. As shown in the images, the prototype explores the topic of climate change, but it is not too difficult to imagine how this could be used for other issues across the political spectrum.

Data exchange should be rewarded 

Finally, throughout the design sprint and prototype building the young people continually reflected on the value of their data. They didn’t agree with the punitive measures attached to the Census, (£1000 fine for non-completion) and would much prefer an incentive-based approach. They integrated this throughout the prototype. They designed it in to entice users to sign up (see Image 7). They felt there should be an instant win for completing the Census, (See Image 8). And they built incentives into every data transaction throughout the prototype, all of which can be managed in a profile page, including sharing and recruiting others. (See Image 9).

Images 7-9 (left to right): paid to participate; rewarded for signing up; build points through engagement

The prototype for the RISE platform that emerged from the five-day co-design sprint highlights the needs and wants of young people in relation. RISE presents a Census platform that is digital first, engages young people on their personal devices and rewards their participation. I did not expect the young people to redesign the Census into a ‘live rolling Census’ nor did I expect them to design a platform that takes that data and reuses it to continually engage them in political challenges. Most significantly, I did not expect them to design a digital platform that directly engages them in politics by circumventing politicians, which underlines how they feel about current political representation.

Adrian Hickey is a Senior Lecturer in Interactive Media at Ulster University. His project was run in partnership with Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) and CreateFuture. His project team included Dave Ward (Creative Director, CreateFuture), Natalie Loh (Graphic Designer, CreateFuture), Emma McCarroll (Art Director), Jodie Morrow (Illustrator), Ethan Fearon (UI/UX Designer) and Zoe Tostevin (Illustrator).

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