Census 2020 technology

Census tests tech for 2020

The Census Bureau will leverage the Internet, mobile technology and geographic information systems as it counts up the country’s population and tries to hold the line on costs.

In 2015, the Census Bureau is on schedule to finalize its operational plan for the 2020 count, according to bureau leaders speaking at a quarterly Program Management Review held Jan. 9. This plan includes design of the population survey, and the technology and processes that will be used to collect and validate population information.

The Census Bureau plans to use the Internet as the primary self-reporting option (as opposed to mail-in forms), and mobile technology to optimize efforts of the army of field workers who will follow up.

"This Census is going to be like no other Census we've ever done," said Lisa Blumerman, acting associate director for decennial census programs. Officials estimate that improved self-reporting could save $548 million, and that technology to improve the management and productivity of field workers could result in $2.3 billion in savings.

Without technological and management innovations, the cost of the 2020 Census could rise as high as $148 per household, according to a May 2014 report of the Commerce Department inspector general.

The Census hires as many as 600,000 workers to handle the street-level work of canvassing non-respondents and conducting follow-up interviews. Tests on new management applications suggest that technology will help map out routes taken by enumerators, keep them in closer touch with supervisors, and eliminate daily in-person meetings to collect assignments and turn in forms. It also gives managers the ability to validate the work of enumerators in real time.

The Census plans to test whether new command and control systems, including centralized command stations showing real-time activities of enumerators, and a mobile application used by field workers, can enable individual local supervisors to manage 23 enumerators each – up from eight per local supervisor in the 2010.

In addition, in Savannah and nearby South Carolina, census officials will test an Internet response system that will only require a person to input a home address to answer questions, instead of using a government-generated identification number.

The Census is still weighing its options when it comes to technology for enumerators. A request for information released in December 2014 points to a bring-your-own device approach. The Census is looking for applications that can live inside secure modules on employee Apple iOS and Android devices, which would pass data from site visits and interviews to bureau systems, so that command centers could get updates in near-real time.

The application approach is also designed to improve the quality of data collected by varying the order of questions and possible responses in interviews.

This year, the bureau released an RFI for software and other techniques that would help automate the detection of changes in addresses, streets and housing structures that might affect the accuracy of the upcoming 2020 census.

A longer version of this article appeared on FCW, a sister site to GCN. 

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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