Census Geography Basics

Census data paints a picture of who we are as Australians and highlights the characteristics – in particular, what’s different and what’s changed – that make up our big, diverse community.

This data – about who we are, where we’ve come from, where we live and work – is underpinned by a strong foundation in geographic locations… so it’s important to understand the basics of this geography before tackling your Census data questions head-on.

The ABS offers a range of Census data products, readily available in different formats, to help you find the information you need – see Which Census Product is Best for You? if you’re not sure where to start.

Selecting a geography to search with

To access Census data about an area, you will need to select a geography structure – in some cases, you might be faced with different options for the area you’re interested in. Selecting the right geography structure will largely depend on the population, characteristics or general trends you’re interested in.

Because Census data gives us a snapshot of Australia at a point in time, it’s important to note that these geographic boundaries are reflective of what they were on Census night, for the Census collection year.

Here are some of our most commonly searched geographies:

Local Government Areas (LGA): An approximation of officially gazetted LGAs as defined by each State and Territory Local Government Department. These are good for understanding characteristics of an individual LGA at a point in time. Because these boundaries sometimes change between Census years, SA2s or SA3s might be better alternatives if you’re interested in trends or comparisons over time. More about LGAs

Commonwealth Electoral Division (CED): An approximation of Australian Electoral Commission electoral division boundaries as they were on Census night, 9 August 2016. More about CEDs

State Suburbs (SSC): A good starting point for understanding your local suburb or rural locality. State Suburbs are an approximation of the officially recognised boundaries of suburbs (in cities and larger towns) and localities (outside of cities and larger towns). In rural areas these provide data on very small geographic areas but this can mean that only basic data is available. More about SSCs

Statistical Area Level 1 (SA1): Designed for detailed spatial analysis of Census data. Use these areas to see how Census characteristics vary at a neighbourhood scale within larger areas such as Suburbs or Local Government Areas. More about SA1s

Statistical Area Level 2 (SA2): These areas represent suburbs within cities or catchments of rural towns. Their purpose is to represent a community that interacts together socially and economically. They have larger populations than SA1s to allow more detailed analysis. More about SA2s

Postal Areas (POA): These areas are designed to approximate postcode boundaries, as closely as possible. There is not a one-for-one correspondence between Australia Post postcodes and POAs, but these are a good starting point for comparison of Census data with other data collected using postcodes. More about POAs

Greater Capital City Statistical Areas (GCCSA): These areas are represent the eight State and Territory capital cities and the remainder of the State/Territory. They are useful for capturing the population within the urban area of the city as well as those who regularly socialise, shop or work within the city. More about GCCSAs

Urban Centres and Localities (UCLs) and Significant Urban Areas (SUAs): These areas represent individual urban areas (cities and towns) as well as rural areas within each state. More about UCLs and SUAs

Indigenous geographies (ILOC, IARE, IREG): These 3 geographies are based on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples population distribution in the broader Australian community, so are ideal for analysis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data. Indigenous Locations (ILOCs) are the smallest unit, and these are in turn combined to create Indigenous Areas (IAREs) and then Indigenous Regions (IREGs). More about Indigenous geographies

Tip: If you’re working with QuickStats or Community Profiles, use the Advanced search map view to see the differences between geography boundaries for an area.

What geography is used as the basis of Census data products?

The geographies described above, plus many more, are part of a geography framework known as the Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS). The ASGS divides Australia up into statistical areas that allow you to investigate, explore and compare data for whole cities and states, down to your local neighbourhood.

This framework is divided into 2 parts:

  1. ABS structures, are areas the ABS designs specifically for releasing statistics. These structures include (but are not limited to) State/Territory regions, Greater Capital City Statistical Areas, Statistical Area Levels 1-4 and Indigenous Structures. One of the most important features of these statistical areas is that they have consistent population sizes. This means you can break your data up by Census variables like age or income and you’ll still be able to see meaningful differences when comparing data for different areas.
  2. Non-ABS structures, are areas that have been defined and maintained by other organisations which the ABS is committed to providing a range of statistics for. These include (but are not limited to) Local Government Areas, Postal Areas, State Suburbs, Commonwealth Electoral Divisions and State Electoral Divisions. The boundaries for these areas change over time, so the ASGS is updated regularly to reflect these changes.

All of these structures are built up from Mesh Blocks, the smallest regions in the ASGS. Learn more about the Australian Statistical Geography Standard.

More information

More detailed information is available from the Statistical Geography portal.