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Digitizing the 2020 Census

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.

  • Alexis Farmer
March 27, 2018

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.