Digitizing the 2020 Census

The 2020 Census will be the first to be completed largely online – if the Census Bureau’s plan goes off without complications. An online census is one of several technological innovations that the Census Bureau has designed to respond to the challenges of counting an increasingly large and diverse society, while also complying with strict cost constraints that Congress has imposed. 

The Bureau developed these technological innovations – which also include redesigning its address canvassing process and incorporating administrative records as sources of information on households – to help save it an estimated $5.2 billion on the upcoming census. Nonresponse follow up – the process through which the Bureau captures responses from households that haven’t submitted their census forms themselves – is the Bureau’s largest and most costly field operation. It is also a significant contributor to the census’ escalating costs. Each decade since 1970, the Bureau has had to invest more resources to improve initial responses to census forms. After running the costliest census ever in 2010, the Bureau has decided to scale back door-to-door canvassing and follow-ups and, instead, rely more heavily on new technology to count everyone.

Under the Bureau’s plans for 2020’s online census, 80 percent of households will receive an invitation to submit their responses over the internet. The Bureau estimates that 45 percent of those households will respond to the census online. The Bureau will mail paper questionnaires to the remaining 20 percent of households, targeting those with low internet access or large older-adult populations. Questionnaires will also be mailed to those households that do not respond online in the first instance. Households that receive paper questionnaires will still be invited to respond to the survey online, but will have the option to submit their answers by mail. Each household will also have the ability to report its answers by phone. If households still do not respond, the Bureau will send census field workers, known as enumerators, door-to-door to collect their data using mobile devices and tablets.

Although moving to a digital platform has its advantages, it also has its risks. The Census Bureau must address key design elements to ensure that it and others are not susceptible to cyber-attacks. Carol Cha Harris, the Director for Information Technology Acquisition Management Issues at the U. S. Government Accountability Office, stated in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that, given the volume of personal information the Census receives, “it will be important for the Bureau to ensure that only respondents and Bureau officials are able to gain access to this information.” In January, the Bureau reported that 24 out of 44 systems needed for the 2018 End-to-End Test – the only process approaching a dry-run for the census before 2020 – are ready for use. Several critical IT systems, including cybersecurity methods, will ideally be tested in the lead up to the 2020 Census to ensure that they are functional.

In addition to these cybersecurity challenges, the move to an online system faces another hurdle that the Census Bureau must overcome: the difficulties many traditionally undercounted communities face accessing the internet. Racial and ethnic minorities, urban and rural low-income households, immigrants, and young children have been historically undercounted at disproportionately high rates. Transitioning to an online platform could lead them to being undercounted even more severely. Some rural areas lack broadband or any internet service. People with lower incomes are less likely to have a smart phone or internet at home.

In addition to encouraging people to respond online, the Bureau is also considering using administrative records – data that people have already given to the federal government for purposes like tax returns, government assistance programs, and the like – to reduce the need for door-to-door visits to households and help improve the quality of the data that it collects. The Bureau estimated that using administrative records in these ways could save it $900 million

But previous results show disparities in those whom administrative records benefit and hurt. A 2016 report investigating the impact of administrative records and the internet on hard-to-count populations revealed the difficulty of matching administrative records to people who belong to racial and ethnic minority groups, increasing the risk of these groups being undercounted.

Overall, new technological developments present both opportunities and risks to the Census Bureau. How it navigates them over the next two years will have a significant effect on the ultimate fairness and accuracy of the 2020 Census.