GIS helps gather true census data

GIS helps gather true census data

Accurate count can bring more money and political clout to local communities

By Claire E. House

GCN Staff

CHICAGO'Using geographic information systems to keep up-to-date census data can help local governments reap financial and legal benefits for themselves and their communities, according to a panel at an August conference of GIS professionals.

The Urban and Regional Information Systems Association held the session, Crisis and Opportunity in 2000: Preparing Local Governments for the New Millennium Data War, at its annual meeting.

The Census Bureau has for several years been gearing up for April 1, Census Day 2000. Among its goals are including local and tribal governments in the process to reach a higher level of accuracy, Census Geography Division chief Robert Marx said.

That accuracy can ultimately bring economic, political and legal benefits to those local governments, participants said.

'Community development block grants, gas tax money'it's all based on census numbers,' said Christopher Thomas, a former Ontario, Calif., GIS professional who works for Environmental Systems Research Institute of Redlands, Calif.

'If you're missing, you don't get your fair share. And you're stuck with that for 10 years,' he said.


Ontario began building its GIS base in 1987, and one of its first GIS applications was a tally for the 1990 census. The city used water meter counts, electric meter hookups, mailed apartment vacancy rate surveys and housing development data to keep current on the number of inhabited housing units, Thomas said.

After the 1990 census, the bureau offered a postcensus review period that let governments appeal the numbers. Thomas' shop calculated about 650 more inhabited housing units than the census found and took the data to the bureau. He estimates that the city recovered up to $2 million in grants for the decade, thanks to the new counts, he said.

Accurate representation is also a factor because city councils, county boards of supervisors and Congress base districting on census numbers, he said.

'Fairness is at stake,' said Ann Azari, a three-term mayor of Fort Collins, Colo., and two-term chair of the Commerce Department's Census 2000 Advisory Committee.

Azari, who said that it is every citizen's civic duty to assist with the census, warned that attorney general's offices will be busy over the next 10 years if census numbers aren't accurate. The Census Bureau has eliminated the appeal process for the upcoming census, so the only course of action for those who do not agree with the numbers is to sue for what they feel is rightfully theirs.

'You can't stop yourself from being sued,' Iowa chief information officer Richard Varn said. But governments that keep good, strong local data will be less likely to lose a lawsuit because of reapportionment and other census-backed allotments, he said.

Starting point

GIS shops should start with their address systems, said Ed Crane, a 16-year county government veteran who works at ESRI. He recommended creating standard naming conventions for data consistency and obtaining accurate multiunit dwelling counts by cross-referencing other sources.

It's late to start building a GIS system for the 2000 census, Crane said, but local governments still have time to contribute data they have, alert officials to planned development and construction, and start thinking about building systems for 2010.

Varn recommended burying local goals in GIS projects. Get the system investment dollars by showing how more accurate local census data ultimately influences decisions at the state and federal levels, he said. Then at the same time, use the data sets for projects your government wants to do.

'In the long run, it helps you become better-funded professionals because people see great value in the kinds of systems and data you collect,' he said. 'This is a critical part of the infrastructure of America.'

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