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Mexico’s Census: A Primer

As is the case with most national Census programs, Mexico’s Census is designed for a civic purpose, rather than for business applications.  The demographics that are collected through the Mexican Census tend to deal with factors that affect the way the government serves its population.  While core variables like household and population count, age, and education level have a direct application in market research, these don’t paint the whole picture of Mexican demographic characteristics.  We’re going to walk you through the strengths and weaknesses of the Mexican Census, as it relates to population and household demographics for business research.

The Mexican census is a decennial enumeration, conducted in years ending in 0.  The logistics of the Census are managed by INEGI, the national institute for geography and statistics.  Mexico’s census, like its northern neighbor’s, was designed to guide political representation and taxation.  Though it was not intended to be used for business research, it just so happens that much of the data collected in the census has a tremendous value for the private sector.

It’s worth noting that that INEGI also conducts a mid-cycle “conteo”; essentially, a light version of the Census.  A similar questionnaire is used, and the Conteo is conducted with a goal sampling the population in a way that represents of 100% population coverage.  You can learn more about the 2015 Conteo, in plain English, through our blog post on that program.

INEGI’s geographic hierarchy is unique, but very rational.  Nationwide, the INEGI Censo 2010 covers geographies like Entidad Federal (basically, states) and municipio (a unit comparable in size and function to a U.S. county).  Every square meter of Mexican territory belongs to one of these units.  On the other hand, there are some very micro-level urban geography units.  Most notably, these include the urban localidad, as well as the AGEB (smaller than a localidad) and the manzana (even smaller than the AGEB).  These urban units are ‘nested’ in a way where each geography’s unique code indicates which ‘parents’ it belongs to in the hierarchy.

AGEB, a Mexican census demographic unit for GIS data
An AGEB’s boundaries surrounding the Zócalo in Mexico City

If you’re familiar with U.S. demographic datasets, you’ll have to change your expectations in Mexico.  The U.S. Bureau of the Census makes use of the American Community Survey (ACS), a nationwide household survey that covers about 2.4% of the population each year.  It has a long laundry list of available variables, and while the data isn’t always conceptually small for small-level spatial analysis, it at least provides a number.  Most, but not all, commercially-developed demographics for the U.S. are based on the ACS.  The Mexican Census uses the mid-Census Conteo, as well as a number of specialized household surveys, to fill in the gaps.  It’s not necessarily a better or worse way of getting mid-cycle data; it’s just different.

Because the census is a civic undertaking, rather than a commercial one, some census data are irrelevant to commercial researchers.  Literacy rates, healthcare access, and indigenous language use are examples of data points that help the Mexican government better direct its investment in social services and infrastructure, but don’t have a clear relationship to the population’s consumption patterns.

Similarly, a lot of the data we would hope to see in a census enumeration is notably absent.  INEGI does not tabulate household income figures as part of the census.  It also does not tabulate consumer expenditures.  These data, and others, are available through other programs and surveys.  At GeoAnalitica, we do quite a bit of work linking these disparate data sources together in a rational way.

So, in a nutshell, the Mexican Census itself is a useful tool with some notable limitations for business users.  Its data provides a solid foundation for building out derived, value-added datasets that have a commercial tilt.  In our datasets, we’ve engineered out a lot of the inconsistency and limitations.  We have a methodology to update demographics to current year, and we have a process to incorporate income and expenditures survey data into our estimates.  For researchers in retail, CPG and other organizations, there are many more pros than cons to using Mexican Census-based data.  Take a look at our products, and contact us to learn more about our unique methodologies and their advantages over pure INEGI Censo data.