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The Census is Getting a 2020 Upgrade

A major upgrade will make the 2020 census unlike any other in U.S. history by modernizing the process for citizens and federal employees.

“For the first time, the 2020 census will be online,” Dr. Ron S. Jarmin, Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer at the U.S. Census Bureau, said Wednesday. “Our challenge is to count everyone once and only once with everyone being where they actually are.”

Jarmin was speaking at the 2019 Esri Federal GIS Conference in Washington, D.C. Esri is a geographic information system (GIS) software, web and geodatabase management applications provider.

Established in 1790, the census counts every resident in the U.S. Mandated by the Constitution to occur every 10 years, the 2020 version will be the survey’s twenty-fourth edition. The last census occurred in 2010, and, according to the agency’s website, it helped communities nationwide receive more than $400 billion in federal funds for hospitals, schools and other crucial public services.

Jarmin noted that although the census is important, it’s also a challenge to conduct due to the size of America’s population.

“It’s an enormous undertaking,” he said. “Very few things we do as a society involve us trying to reach every household and count every family. We have to visit every household either virtually or in-person.”

This reality created a heavier burden for everyone involved during past censuses. Citizens and public servants alike spent more energy, money and time on census-related paperwork each decade.

“One of the areas where technology has really improved how we’re doing the census is in the field,” Jarmin said. “[Census-takers previously] did all their travel expenses and hours worked on paper. When they go into the field next year, they’ll have an iPhone and they’ll do all their expenses and hours worked on the phone.”

Jarmin said that the 2020 census will be offered across three secure mediums – the internet, telephone and mailed paper forms. “Back in 2010, you got a paper form in the mail,” he said of citizens. “If you didn’t fill it out and send it back in, someone came and knocked on your door.”

The next Census Day is scheduled for April 1, 2020, and the agency is predicting that 60.5 percent of U.S. residents will personally respond to the survey. The remainder of the population will need to be contacted during the USCB’s follow-up efforts.

The Census Bureau had 600,000 workers spread across 500 offices nationwide collecting non-response follow-ups in 2010. Digitizing the census’s workflows next year, however, may decrease the number of people and offices necessary for executing it. For example, the agency conducted a test in Providence, Rhode Island, that discovered that using mobile devices made workers 50 percent more efficient.

The 2020 census, meanwhile, will provide workers with mobile devices that will allow them to digitally file their hours worked, travel expenses and work availability. Furthermore, the iPhones used during next year’s survey will use data to inform workers about location, route, language and survey hour information to improve their results.

Jarmin said that data from the 2020 census will ultimately help determine the amount of federal funding and House representatives each state receives. Unlike older versions, he added, the next census will hopefully result in clearer information for law-making.

“What we want is to be able to move the data closer to the decision-maker,” he said. “[Decision-makers] want data information that’s actionable and that they can make decisions on. We’re trying to build digital tools that have a particular user context in mind.”

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Avatar photo Spencer Grady-Pawl

This is very exciting–it’s hard to imagine such an enormous undertaking being done solely with pen and paper, so I’m glad that everyone involved will have an easier time collecting information now.