On Thursday, 300 workers in Sharjah set out to begin the elaborate process of visiting all homes, buildings and businesses in the emirate to gather some of the most important data a government can have: accurate figures on the population they serve.
They are attempting to build an incredibly detailed picture. Data gathered on families will focus on nationality, number of members, age, qualifications and language. Buildings will be recorded by name, type and number of storeys, among other variables. For businesses, name, type, activity and number of employees and their nationalities will be collated.
All this is for the emirate's You Count Sharjah Census 2022, the preliminary findings of which will be shared with authorities in March 2023. For the past seven years, the emirate's government drew figures from the 2015 census, which recorded a population of 1,405,843, with Emiratis accounting for 12 per cent.
Since then, the UAE's economy has grown, immigration has increased and a pandemic has hit the world hard. Getting a sense of how demographics have changed as soon as possible means governments have the best chance of serving the people well.
The census has been helping leaders for millennia, particularly in the Middle East. The first recorded one took place in what is now Iraq under the Babylonians some 6,000 years ago. It is just one of the many ways that empire was remarkably advanced for its time.
Unfortunately, the recent history of census gathering in the region is patchy. Modern-day Iraq has not had one for decades, and one planned for 2020 was delayed due to the pandemic. Sometimes, a lack up-to-date figures is deliberate. A census in Lebanon, where politics is arranged along partisan, religious lines could prove destabilising if it uncovers marked demographic changes from the last survey, which was held in 1932.
There are remarkable success stories. Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, holds one every decade. It gives the government data to help plan for what will perhaps be the country's most central challenge in the years ahead, a rapidly growing, increasingly young population.
Nonetheless, a lack of accurate data remains a real impediment for too many governments in the region. The UN Population Fund recommends that countries conduct a census every 10 years, describing them as "among the most complex and massive peacetime exercises a nation can undertake". It is little surprise countries in the middle of war, economic crises and widespread corruption struggle to do this.
Sharjah is lucky to be in a position to hold a second in seven years. In recent years the UAE more widely has invested a great deal in creating smarter government services and operations, a bid to make the lives of residents easier and prepare the country for what is expected to be rapid growth in the years ahead.
Data will be key to this. And while it might be used to inform very modern policies, it is still only possible because of the hard, manual work of the gatherers who yesterday were out in force, and will continue to be for some time. They should be congratulated for carrying out one of the most important tasks a government must do.