The Role of IT in the 2020 Census

All eyes are on the U.S. Census Bureau and its efforts to prepare for the 2020 census.

To better understand the role technology, specifically data analytics, will play in rolling out the 2020 census, GovLoop sat down with Lisa Blumerman, Associate Director for Decennial Census Programs.

“We’re working toward bringing the census into the 21st century,” Blumerman said during an interview this past fall. “A big part of that has involved re-engineering the census — looking at different areas we can optimize to improve the way we do our work and focus on ensuring that we can do a complete and accurate count. Our current priorities for census planning are about conducting a successful end-to-end census test.”

Below is a recap of our conversation, which we edited for length and clarity.

GOVLOOP: What are the biggest technology issues or updates that you’ll be preparing for with the 2020 census?

BLUMERMAN: This census will be the most automated and technologically-advanced census that we’ve taken. We’ve really reengineered it from top to bottom, and using data and data analytics has been a key point. Some of the main things we’ve been looking at are how we can use new data, techniques, and methodologies to help us improve our census-taking. We’re looking at how to build our address plane, how we will engage and motivate the population to respond and how to improve the way we manage our cases and our workload for those people that don’t respond and for our enumerators, who will ultimately have to go out and knock on those doors.

GOVLOOP: Can you talk about the innovative design changes that incorporate analytics technology into specific program areas of the upcoming census?

BLUMERMAN: What you’re looking at are our four innovation areas to reengineer the census. The census itself is an incredibly large and complex undertaking, consisting of about 35 different operations. The first of those is our area of reengineering address canvassing, which is about determining how to document the full universe of addresses in the country so that we can ensure that we’re taking a complete and accurate census.

Reengineering address canvassing for us for the 2020 census will be different than the process for previous censuses. We used to send out about 150,000 listers to physically walk every block in the nation. What’s really exciting this time is that we’re able to use existing data, existing techniques and new methodologies so we can accomplish the vast majority of that work in an office. We’ll be using aerial imagery and information from the United States Postal Service to help us validate the address list. In those parts of the country where we can’t do the work in-office, we will send listers out into the field to physically walk the blocks.

GOVLOOP: Can you take us through the optimizing process?

BLUMERMAN: Our second innovation area is what we call optimizing self-response. This is about how we engage and we motivate the population to respond to the census itself. Self-response is one of the ways that we can ensure the census is extraordinarily accurate, and hopefully at a lower cost, because every self-response is much less expensive than sending someone out to knock on that door. Our components for optimizing self-response for this census consists of a number of things.

The first is a very robust and active advertising campaign and partnership program, something we’ve been working on for the last two years. We’ve got a lot of work to do on this in the next year and a half, and everyone will really see this in full force during the 2020 census. Another new feature is that this census will be an Internet-first census. This is a really exciting innovation for the census itself. I do want to be really clear than when I say “Internet-first,” I don’t mean Internet-only. Our intent with an Internet-first census is to offer the Internet as an option to every household that would like to respond that way. But if residents don’t want to respond to the census using the Internet, they can still use a paper questionnaire or take their response over the phone.

I like to talk about the last two innovation areas together: utilizing administrative records and third-party data, and reengineering our field operations. The reason why I like to talk about them as one, even though they’re two separate areas with separate methodologies, is that they’re both about reengineering our non-response, follow-up operation. When we conduct the census, we first start with what we call a self-response period — where everybody in the country has the opportunity to respond on their own. We discussed a moment ago about optimizing self-response, with the use of the Internet, phone and paper questionnaires to respond. We recognize, though, that not everyone will self-respond. As that period comes to a close, we will have still millions of housing units whose doors we need to knock to get that response.

That’s where these two innovation areas come hand-in-hand and they come together to allow us to reengineer our largest operation or non-response follow-up. We are looking to utilize administrative records and third-party data to help us reduce that in-field workload. These data can help us determine the best time of day to send an enumerator to a neighborhood and help us manage and determine routes for our enumerators to follow so that we can increase our productivity.

GOVLOOP: With the decennial program, what sort of new training you are providing to employees to accomplish your goals for the 2020 census?

BLUMERMAN: One of the aspects that we looked at as we re-engineered the census, consistent with our re-engineering in our field operations, was taking a different approach to how we’re going to train all of the enumerators and the listers — the large temporary workforce that we hire.

In previous censuses, our principal way of delivering training to hundreds of thousands of people in a very short period of time, was through something called verbatim training. We brought these people into a classroom-like setting and read at them and talked to them for three or four days, depending on the specific operation. What we’ve been building and testing over the last few years is really bringing our training into the 21st century by using a combination of online and classroom training.

We rolled out our first automated training for our 2016 census test and have continued to improve that over time. Most recently, we rolled out the most recent version for our address canvassing component of our 2018 end-to-end census test. That training now consists of a combination of online training, and classroom training. In the case of address canvassing, we start with what we call an “administrative day,” where we bring people in, onboard them, provide them with some technology and have them take some online training. After they’ve completed and passed that online training, we bring people back together, do a summary and some review and then do in-field classwork. We’re finding from our re-engineering of our training that this is a much better way to onboard and train our temporary workforce.

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Angela Cottingham Corley

I’m interest in a census temporary job in 2020. I would like to learn more. There’s several other people interested in this program.