How cities, states prep for high-stakes 2020 census
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Feb 26, 2019
Although the decennial census is ultimately a federal responsibility, the count’s effect on state, local and tribal governments is significant: The statistics are used to allocate more than $800 billion in federal funding, assign congressional representation and redraw congressional districts. That’s why governments at all levels are looking to technology to help ensure the most accurate count.
CommunityConnect Labs, which handles the Census Outreach project, worked with governments and community organizations in nine locations, including Los Angeles and Central Falls, R.I., to launch community-based address canvassing efforts that target unconventional housing, such as converted garages or trailers parked in backyards. As a result, about 1,000 volunteers and 400 city staff members submitted 15,000 records of such units to the Census Bureau to be considered for its master address file as part of the bureau’s Local Update of Census Addresses program. LUCA lets state, local and tribal governments compare their local housing data with Census’s master list. Census workers must approve any additions, corrections or deletions that are submitted.
The project offers several tools, available to government entities and priced on a sliding scale based on population. One is the Canvassing Optimizer, which can track canvassing progress in real time and doesn’t require canvassers to download an app. It’s also available in Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese.
“Often these volunteers are hesitant to download a new app onto their phones. Or the volunteers were Spanish speakers and needed to use the software in Spanish," CommunityConnect Labs CEO Perla Ni said. "It was really thinking about the residents who would be volunteering in these communities, and they needed a simple and no-download app in their language to use.”
The tool prompts canvassers, who are primarily volunteers, to answer six questions to collect the details the bureau needs, such as a description of the housing unit -- type and color -- plus the address of the main unit, where the unit is situated on the property and GPS coordinates. Volunteers used their own mobile phones to answer the questions via text or Facebook Messenger -- apps they already had and use -- and got the coordinates using their phones’ GPS.
“We collected it on our secured servers, and then it was quality-checked," formatted for the LUCA database and sent to the local cities and counties, Ni said. “They matched it up with the master address list [and] to any existing addresses they had and submitted that to the Census Bureau.”
The Census Outreach project offers other tools, too. Field Staff Recruiter can help county and city governments screen, hire and engage enumerator candidates; Community Motivator automates follow-ups and reminders to take the census survey in multiple languages; and Misinformation Reporter lets volunteers report problems via text, a Facebook page or phone with interactive voice response. Users can submit photos or a URL.
Census Outreach is also working on Help Desk, a chatbot available in multiple languages. It grew out of the organization’s LUCA work in Providence, R.I., where survey recipients called the city to ask questions about what to do -- questions city workers aren’t always equipped to answer, Ni said. Those local government employees are great resources to help Census Bureau branch offices, however.
“They realize they have local advantages, knowing their neighborhoods, knowing their communities, having a network of nonprofits, having volunteers that can really enhance the work of the Census Bureau and get everyone counted,” Ni said of state and local governments.
Existing data on the 'hard to count'
In New Mexico, ranked by the Census Bureau' s Hard to Count 2020 database as the most difficult state in the country to count, officials combined address databases from agencies such as the departments of Motor Vehicles, Transportation and Health into one master database.
“The address lists that we received were scrubbed of personal identifiers,” said Robert Rhatigan, LUCA lead for the state. “They were nothing more than the address and perhaps an XY coordinate that corresponded with a spot on the ground, but addresses can be written in different ways, and the same address might appear slightly differently in its syntax and so they also might be placed on the ground differently.”
His team deduplicated any addresses that appeared the same syntactically and checked to see if the addresses matched latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. Lastly, they studied aerial imagery to decide which address points corresponded with the correct spot on the ground.
They identified 100,000 addresses out of the state’s 1 million housing units in need of correction and submitted the changes to LUCA.
“I think it was a success on our end as far as our ability to identify a lot of addresses that needed improvement, and I can only hope that the Census Bureau is able to validate those addresses and incorporate them into the count,” Rhatigan said. He won’t know until August, when the appeals process begins. The state will have 30 days to appeal rejected changes to the Office of Management and Budget.
A report by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy at The George Washington University estimated that New Mexico stands to get about $6.2 billion -- or $2,972 per person -- in health, housing and education program obligations based on the 2020 census. More than half would go toward Medicaid.
“If an undercount happens, that is something we are stuck with for the next 10 years, Rhatigan said. “A 1 percent undercount of New Mexicans -- so, that’s only about 20,000, 21,000 people we’re talking about -- would cost the state of New Mexico somewhere between $600 million and $1 billion over the next decade.”
Rhatigan added that a 1 percent undercount is probably optimistic. “We’re looking at somewhere between 2 and up to 4 percent undercount in a state like New Mexico,” he said. “That brings those figures to astronomical amounts.”
He praised LUCA but emphasized that state, local and tribal governments must not rely on federal efforts alone. Messaging must come from a trusted, local voice to get census responses from undercounted groups such as immigrants and low-income families, he said. “It has to come from someone they already know in terms they can understand what’s at stake for them.”