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.