Modernizing the Census Infrastructure – The Census Project on Federal Drive

The Federal Drive radio show with Tom Temin recently interviewed Howard Fienberg, co-director of The Census Project, about the American Community Survey (ACS) and improving the Census Bureau’s data infrastructure.

Tom Temin: And it’s almost hard to imagine how they can do sampling. Because I’m thinking of a road that’s about seven or eight miles long, it goes through a couple of different zip codes, a road up in the Northeast that I’ve been visiting and riding on the past few weeks with some frequency, and this road, again it’s a suburban road near a large demographic, statistical metropolitan population area, whatever they call it, and you pass one house that is a little five room shanty from the 1920s. And then 100 yards later, there’s an entrance to a driveway where someone put up a gorgeous 15 room mansion, literally with the three-car garage. So, what do you sampling if you go on that road? How does the Census Bureau manage that and what do they need to do to enhance the sampling to make sure that they capture all the data they need to?

Howard Fienberg: A big piece of that is increasing the size of that sample, because we are talking about something that goes on every year, so it will help capture that kind of change over time, but the more households you’re able to hit in a given year, the better the quality of the data on the other side. So rapidly increasing the sample size is something that we’ve been hitting on pretty heavily. It wouldn’t actually cost that much money and the Bureau of themselves estimated that it would be about 45 million just to up the sample size by a million households. There are a lot of things that need to be done behind the scenes to bolster how the ACS is conducted. Some of that is just on the side of how they build the sample. …

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Howard Feinberg, he’s co-director of the Census Project. And the project has written to the Senate and House appropriators asking for this funding. And you mentioned that one of the things they should do is modernize the Bureau’s data infrastructure. …

Howard Fienberg: Absolutely. … any big data operation, you’re looking at overlapping data sets, a lot of duplications. We’re talking about trying to bring the bureau into 21st century data infrastructure. … the ability to draw across multiple databases and integrate them effectively without messing up your data. … It’s extremely difficult for a government agency to deal with this massive amount of data and do that effectively, while not corrupting the data. It’s a normal practice in the private sector…

Tom Temin: … the American Community Survey was delayed this year because of pandemic. How does that tie into the issue?

Howard Fienberg: It’s a big deal. As you said, we talked about the importance of the five-year estimates to be able to get reasonable and accurate data for a rural area, remote areas, certain subpopulations/ethnic groups. A delay in the release of those five-year estimates means that people are left wanting and trying to put together… proper surveys of those populations themselves in the private sector. Government is not up to date on being able to understand what’s happening in those populations, how best to serve them. Decisions that need to be made in rural areas, a lot of those are probably going to be held off. Investments are not going to be made and businesses are not going to open there or businesses are going to leave there for a lack of data.

Tom Temin: Howard Fienberg is co-director of the Census Project. Let’s hope they’re listening. Thanks so much for joining me.

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