Putting 2020 Census Innovations to the Test

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

The rubber is about to hit the road.

Or, in the parlance of a 21st century census, fingers are about to hit the keyboard. At least that’s what the Census Bureau is hoping when the 2014 Census Site Test kicks off this spring.

Yes, census fans, the first major 2020 Census field test is on the horizon. According to a Dec. 24, 2013, Federal Register notice, 192,500 lucky households in Rockville, Md., and Washington, D.C., will be a laboratory for enumeration strategies and operational innovations that finally could push the decennial count off its 230 year paper-and-pencil foundation.

The Census Bureau is under orders from Congress to keep the cost of the next census down — way down, as in no more than the cost of the 2010 count. So the bureau really wants people to fire up those desktops, or pull out their laptops, tablets or smartphones, and help reduce spending on paper forms, postage, processing and door-knocking census takers. The 2014 test will ask some households to pre-register for the count and indicate their preferred method of contact with the Census Bureau, such as email or cell phone. People can take it upon themselves to answer the census via the Internet or by phone. The bureau will nudge non-responders by email or snail mail, sending paper forms as needed. (We should pause here to contemplate that today’s high tech gadgets and preferred methods of cyber-communication might be considered ancient when 2020 rolls around.)

Holdouts will fall into the nonresponse follow-up universe, historically the most costly census operation. After an unsuccessful attempt to automate door-to-door operations in 2010, the Census Bureau will have field workers test a range of modern devices, including iPhones and iPads, to gather information at the door. Some census-takers will be invited to bring their own device (BYOD) as part of the field test, and the bureau will evaluate using ubiquitous Google Maps, instead of paper maps, to guide enumerators through neighborhoods.

Census managers also will test their adaptive design strategy, a fancy moniker for deciding, in real time, which homes enumerators should contact, in what order and when, how many times, and using a contact method likely to elicit responses. Previously, census takers set out with a list of addresses, made their rounds without guidance, and kept calling and visiting recalcitrant households up to six times before resorting to proxy sources, such as a neighbor, for information.

The Census Bureau will put its toe in the water of a potentially controversial new approach to reducing the follow-up workload: using administrative records — data from government databases and third-party (commercial) sources — to identify vacant housing units and to enumerate households that don’t respond willingly. Given public angst over the NSA and “big data,” I’m waiting to see how Congress and ordinary Americans react to the idea of a massive sharing of personal information, albeit on a one-way street (into the Census Bureau, but not out). I’m worried that substituting administrative data for the real thing will not yield the detailed race and ethnicity data the census requires. And I wonder how grassroots organizers will structure their “be counted” campaigns in the face of “don’t worry, we counted you another way.” But, hey, someone’s got to lose sleep over this stuff!

If you want to weigh in on the 2014 Site Test design, you have until February 24 to submit comments. Oh, and before I forget, a note to the Census Bureau: Could you please send my dad a paper 2020 Census form from the get-go? He doesn’t use a computer or cell phone (he does still have a slide rule, though), but he’ll be 89 and would sure like to make his daughter proud.

3 responses to “Putting 2020 Census Innovations to the Test

  1. “The Census Bureau will put its toe in the water of a potentially controversial new approach to reducing the follow-up workload: using administrative records — data from government databases and third-party (commercial) sources — to identify vacant housing units and to enumerate households that don’t respond willingly.”

    This method assumes that accurate administrative records exist.

    I worked as an enumerator during the 2010 operation. Several addresses I visited stand out in my memory for various reasons, but I’ll give you an example that illustrates why using administrative records may not provide accurate information in some cases.

    I visited one address repeatedly…an old, rundown, wood frame house. Although I could see movement, and hear noise inside the house, no one would answer the door. Neighbors refused to provide any information. I looked up the property records and located the property owner….a local attorney, whom I visited at his law office. The lawyer who owned the place claimed he had three tenants living at the property in question but refused to provide any other information.

    Why do I remember this? Beside the very nasty attitude I got from the owner? A year after the decennial census took place, I read a news article about that very same address. A fire had taken place at that house and the fire department rescued 16 people who were living there. As it turned out the lawyer had acquired the property with plans of constructing a new commercial project on that site. While the owner was waiting for zoning approval, he had that old single family converted into an illegal boarding house and filled it with undocumented immigrants. Wanna bet that administrative records would have shown that house as vacant? Undocumented immigrants typically don’t have drivers licenses, social security cards, bank accounts, etc.

    Using the internet and administrative records will certainly reduce the need for sending people out on follow up visits, but In many cases, there will be no substitute for sending someone to knock on doors, or talk to neighbors or owners. From my personal experience of working on the 2010 decennial operation, it’s obvious, to me at least, that hiring hordes of temp workers a week or two before operations start, and sending them out with minimal training is not an efficient way to conduct a census.

    I believe that the proper solution is a mix of technology(internet response), data mining of existing government and commercial records, and properly trained, PROFESSIONAL field reps. Instead of hiring large numbers of temps, the Census Bureau should rely on its professional field reps for the bulk of non-response followup that can not reconciled without an actual visit.

  2. Mark, thanks for sharing an insightful example of the limits of using administrative records (AR) to substitute for door-to-door enumeration of unresponsive households in the census. I agree that the Census Bureau must modernize field work for the 2020 Census, employing a range of methods and operations to enumerate people who don’t respond voluntarily. But I agree that ARs are less likely to capture accurately many living arrangements in lower income and immigrant communities, where people may move often between addresses or be part of extended-family households. Collecting accurate race and ethnicity data also is an important goal of the census, and I am not confident that either government or commercial “big data” sets can provide this information.

    Terri Ann

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