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How small errors can have a big impact on small populations

Tue Sep 27 2011
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When you checked the boxes on your census form, you probably did not pay much attention to the form design. But it is something the Census Bureau researches and gives a lot of attention. Something as simple as using vertical instead of horizontal boxes can have a big impact on how you read the form and the data we gather.

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If one person’s eye misreads the form and checks the wrong box, it may not change percentages of statistics very much. But if even 1 percent of a large population checks the wrong box on a question, it could lead to an inaccurate picture of a smaller population.

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For example, you’ll see in the video below that if you have 1,000 circles and 100,000 squares and just one-percent of the squares are counted as circles, then that’s one thousand squares now listed as circles. This mismarking would result in responses that double the amount of circles.

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A similar data capture error affected the 2010 Census results for same-sex couple households. On the form used by census takers, the boxes for sex were placed vertically, and the wrong gender box was marked for a small percentage of opposite-sex partners, artificially increasing the percentage of same-sex couple households.

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When we discovered this inconsistency in the responses, we developed a better set of estimates to provide a more accurate measure of same-sex married and unmarried partner households. These estimates are now available.

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At the Census Bureau, we strive to eliminate these kinds of errors and modify our survey questionnaires to gather the best possible data on the nation’s people, places and economy.

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This brief video illustrates how a small error in a large population can create a large error in a smaller related population, such as the same-sex couple population.

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For more information, visit our online press kit.

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