‘Sweeping design changes’ for 2020 U.S. Census

February 8, 2017

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We are only a few years away now from a milestone that distinguishes one data collection effort above all others, the decennial count that the U.S. Census Bureau conducts. The results of this monumental task, one which has been repeated once every ten years since 1790, provide a quantitative snapshot of the nation that drives numerous political and social processes. Directions Magazine recently had the opportunity to speak with Deirdre Dalpiaz Bishop, chief of the Geography Division of the U.S. Census Bureau. Bishop served as chief of the Decennial Census Management Division, where she implemented the 2020 Research and Testing Program and completed the 2020 Census Operational Plan.

Q. Technologies are constantly evolving; for Census 2020, what digital geospatial technologies are integrated into the system, and how are they employed across the overall process?

A. The purpose of the 2020 Census is to conduct a census of population and housing and disseminate the results to the President, the states, and the American people. Many people are surprised to hear that the Census Bureau must have the vast majority of the 2020 Census operations and systems designed and integrated prior to the 2018 End-to-End Census Test, scheduled to begin in the late summer of 2017.

The 2020 Census includes sweeping design changes in four key innovation areas: using new methodologies to conduct address canvassing, optimizing self-response, reducing the nonresponse follow-up workload by incorporating administrative records and third-party data, and implementing technology to replace tasks traditionally conducted by humans. Digital geospatial technologies are used throughout the process, primarily to build a nationwide address list and set of maps that are used to collect, tabulate, and disseminate accurate 2020 Census data. For example, during an operation called In-Office Address Canvassing, the Census Bureau plans to add new addresses to the address list using geographic information systems and aerial imagery instead of sending census employees to walk and physically check 11 million census blocks.

Q. The role of In-Office Address Canvasing is a new advancement in the Census 2020 workflow. Can you describe the process and tell us how it’s going? How might the data produced be used beyond April 2020? Can it be used by other government agencies?

A. As the Census Bureau prepares for the 2020 Census, the goal is to reduce the nationwide in-field address canvassing of the past by developing innovative methodologies for updating and maintaining the Census Bureau’s address list and spatial database throughout the decade. For 2020, the Census Bureau will still canvass the entire nation, but instead of sending someone to canvass every block on foot, address canvassing will consist of three large components.

First, 100 percent of the nation’s addresses will be canvassed during In-Office Address Canvassing. To ensure an accurate address list, the agency will continually update the address list and maps based on data from multiple sources, including the U.S. Postal Service; tribal, state, and local governments; aerial imagery, and third-party data providers.

Second, based on recent research and testing, about 25 percent of the nation’s addresses will be canvassed in the field. This will be key, for example, in urban areas with multi-unit structures where it is difficult to determine how many housing units are within each building.

Third, the Census Bureau will conduct an on-going study to assess the Master Address File’s accuracy and validate in-office techniques. This will include in-field canvassing of 20,000 census blocks per year.

Q. Government agencies have recognized popular trend towards citizen science efforts, and many – such as the US Geological Survey – have designed ways that the public can contribute to data collection efforts in meaningful and authentic ways. Is there any role for this in Census 2020, either ahead of time in data work or during the event itself?

A. The Census Bureau works closely with the U.S. Postal Service; tribal, federal, state, and local governments; and third-party data providers to ensure development of a comprehensive geospatial database to support the decennial census and surveys.

For example, the U.S. Postal Service shares its Delivery Sequence File regularly. Each year, the Census Bureau adds over one million new addresses using this source. For the past few years, state and local government officials have shared geospatial information, validating nearly 60 million address records and adding over 200,000 new addresses.

As the 2020 Census approaches, government officials will have the opportunity to submit boundary updates through the annual Boundary and Annexation Survey. They will be able to review the Census Bureau’s address list during the Local Update of Census Addresses.

Some local governments involve community members in their geospatial development process. When that occurs, and those governments share information with the Census Bureau, the information may be used to improve the Census Bureau’s geospatial database.

Q. The decennial Census has played an important role in U.S. politics since its establishment in the late 18th century. The count is intended to capture the actual and complete national population distribution on a decadal basis, so that it can then inform any necessary redistribution of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Today the Census Bureau regularly uses other approaches to measuring population changes on a more frequent temporal basis, such as the American Community Survey. Might there be a time when the decennial Census is replaced with another census instrument like ACS?

A. The data collected during the decennial census are used for important purposes:

  • To apportion representation among states as mandated by Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution:
  • “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this union, according to their respective Numbers… The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”
  • To draw congressional and state legislative districts, school districts, and voting precincts.
  • To enforce voting rights and civil rights legislation.
  • To distribute over $400 billion annually in federal funds to the states.
  • To inform decisions made by government, non-profit organizations, and businesses.

The decennial census previously consisted of a short-form and a long-form. To provide more current information, the long-form was replaced by the American Community Survey, which samples a portion of the nation annually.

While the American Community Survey and other surveys provide accurate statistics about population and housing, the decennial census provides a count of every person in the nation that is not replicated by other surveys.


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