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.

Losing Sleep (While Counting Sheep)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Census stakeholders, my head is spinning with thoughts of 2020 census planning.

Sure, you might think the next census is too far in the future to keep you up at night. (Plus, I bet most of you would rather let me do the worrying.) But let me quote the Census Bureau’s new counter-in-chief, John Thompson, who told a House subcommittee at a September 11 hearing, “budget uncertainty is causing significant concerns for the 2020 census program as we enter that period during which it is crucial to conduct tests so that we can begin applying new technologies and methods … We have already delayed planned research and testing activities to later years … We cannot further delay critical research that will help us make critical design decisions for those systems.”

Let’s stipulate to one shared goal: The 2020 census can’t look like the 2010 census. For one thing, the nation can’t afford the $30 billion price tag of repeating an outdated census design. Equally important, the way we communicate with each other has changed rapidly.

Automation is the buzzword for 2020, but despite the fact that many of us live on our gadgets, a cyber-census (you heard it here first!) isn’t as simple as it might seem. Will data be secure if census-takers bring their own devices (BYOD)? Can we design a questionnaire that people can navigate as easily on a smartphone as on a computer and that works across all operating systems (the ones we use now and the ones that Google, Microsoft and Apple have yet to dream up)? Will people welcome emails, text messages and cell phone calls from the Census Bureau (where did they get my information — from the NSA?)? And what about people who want to respond online without a unique code tying them to a specific address? The challenges are broad and deep.

There could be significant savings (up to $2 billion, the agency says) if the bureau tapped into demographic, housing and geographic information already in the hands of other government agencies. These administrative records could, potentially, eliminate the need for a universal sweep of the nation’s addresses before the census starts; identify vacant homes, to avoid costly follow-up; determine the best days and times to call or visit unresponsive homes; identify households that might have neglected to report every resident; and yes, even to add people to the count without knocking on their door.

But the Census Bureau must work out separate deals with each federal agency and state holding useful records; much of this data-sharing could require changes in federal or state laws. And each dataset has its strengths and weaknesses — Medicaid records, for example, do not have names or street addresses, only social security numbers and birth dates — which could require linking one set of records to another.

I know I sound like a broken record, but the Census Bureau needs money to figure all of this out in time. The bureau can execute a fundamentally redesigned 2020 census for the 2010 census price tag (plus inflation), Director Thompson says. Invest now, save later — that’s the bottom line.

So let’s review where things stand for the fiscal year (FY2014) that begins today. For starters, we can flip the calendar back to FY2013 for a while. The Census Bureau must make do with last year’s funding level, which was 13 percent below its budget request, while Congress figures out how to … ummm … get its act together. Then we hold our breath while lawmakers decide whether to slide backwards another $45 million (courtesy of House appropriators; H.R. 2787), give the agency most of what it needs (thanks to far-sighted Senate appropriators; S. 1329), or settle on some amount in between.

The census is a 10-year process, a cyclical activity that starts small and builds to the grand finale of enumerating every household in a vast, diverse nation. There is a ramp-up to that denouement, one that starts modestly and escalates as we hurtle towards the “zero” year. But the direction, once planning starts, has to be up.

Wikipedia describes a “ramp up” as the period between product development, and maximum capacity utilization, characterized by product and process experimentation and improvements. Sounds like a logical business practice, right? (Think of the time and investment in research it takes to bring new prescription drugs to the market.) You would think lawmakers would want the Census Bureau to operate like an efficient corporation. But long-term fiscal planning isn’t Congress’ strong suit, now, is it?

The Census Bureau needs $245 million in FY2014 to keep 2020 census planning on track; the House bill cuts that amount by more than a third ($91 million). Already delayed by a year are all of the tests scheduled for this year and next; some tests have been cancelled. The bureau has pushed back the field test of the 2020 Census form to FY2016, which is getting uncomfortably close to the April 1, 2017, and April 1, 2018, deadlines for submitting topics and questions, respectively, to Congress. Perhaps most troubling, the Census Bureau won’t nail down a design framework until late FY2015, a year behind schedule, leaving less time to develop systems and operations.

Did I mention that the next census starts in less than six years? The Census Bureau can do a lot of things, but it cannot stop the clock. I bet Director Thompson is having a few sleepless nights, too.