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Using GIS Technology in the 2020 Census

Thu Feb 21 2019
Written by: Dr. Ron Jarmin, Deputy Director
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Geography is one of the cornerstones of every census and survey the U.S. Census Bureau conducts, providing the framework for statistics, survey design, sample selection, data collection, tabulation and dissemination. Over the last few years, the geography team at the Census Bureau has created and managed an advance and highly detailed national geospatial database with addresses; locations of housing units; all of the legal, statistical and administrative boundaries for the nation; and a digital representation of all the roads in the country with their associated names. We recently attended the Esri Federal GIS Conference where we presented some of these cutting-edge tools.

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Deputy Director Ron Jarmin at the Esri Federal GIS Conference on January 30, 2019.

Our team of geographers and geographic IT specialists provide cutting-edge innovations, expertise and commitment. They have helped shape our mission to serve as the leading source of quality data about the people, places and economy of the nation. Their work demonstrates the importance of geospatial information to the goals of the Census Bureau and its leading role among statistical organizations in the United States and around the world.

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Deirdre Bishop, chief of the Geography Division and a team of geographers presenting at the Esri plenary.

Some of the key activities for the 2020 Census are establishing where to count, motivating people to respond, knocking on their doors if they don’t, tabulating the data, and sharing the results. When dealing with a diverse nation of over 330 million people living in more than 140 million housing units, the challenge becomes quite complex but it remains manageable with the right tools. We have to count every single person, once, only once, and in the right place. And in order to get it right, we have incorporated the use of geospatial information throughout our design.  

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Establishing Where to Count:

A major innovation for the 2020 Census, is our use of In-Office Address Canvassing. We have around 100 technicians using the Block Assessment Research and Classification Application (BARCA) system that allows technicians to canvass the entire nation using satellite and aerial imagery while sitting at their computers. With BARCA, as demonstrated at the Esri plenary, a technician is assigned specific blocks to look for growth and decline in the number of residential buildings by comparing imagery from 2009 to now. The technician then looks to see if we have the correct number of addresses in the block. With In-Office Address Canvassing, what took over two hours to canvass in the field during the 2010 Census now takes less than two minutes in the office which will mean a more efficient and more accurate address list for our census counts and the resulting data.

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Motivating People to Respond:

We’re offering three secure options for people to respond to the 2020 Census — internet, telephone and paper. We’re making it easy for people to respond anytime, anywhere and we’re in the process of hiring 1,500 partnership specialists to help spread the census message.

We created an interactive mapping tool called ROAM, Response Outreach Area Mapper, to help direct outreach efforts. Partnership specialists around the country can use ROAM to do two basic things: (1) use its national map of census tracts to locate areas of predicted low self-response and (2) use its underlying American Community Survey data to learn more about the people and households in those areas.

Government officials, community leaders and businesses can visualize areas by predicted mail nonresponse rates, determine contributing socio-economic or demographic factors, and plan outreach, marketing and promotional efforts. These data also help the Census Bureau hire staff who reflect the diversity and speak the languages in their community. These and other efforts by Census Bureau partners can improve response rates.

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Counting Those Who Don’t Respond:

A few weeks after Census Day — April 1, 2020 — we expect 60.5 percent of the housing units will have responded. For the rest, about 60 million, we’ll need to go out and knock on their doors. As census takers follow up with nonresponders, they will use a mobile device to navigate to the nonresponding household and to ask the census questions. Their entire workflow has been enabled by specialized and secure mobile technology. For the 2020 Census, approximately 350,000 census takers will take to the streets equipped with iPhone 8 mobile devices.

Census takers will submit their work availability for the week, receive case assignments and submit reports back to their supervisors all in their mobile device. The Census Bureau is modernizing field staff workflows by making every step in the process mobile-enabled, with easy-to-use and intuitive applications. The benefits include faster data collection and submission, reducing paper use and eliminating the need for daily meetings with a supervisor, while continuing to ensure respondent confidentiality and data security through robust encryption methods.

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Disseminating the Data and Sharing Results:

When the data for the 2020 Census has been collected, we’ll tabulate the information to the right geographic location, and begin the process of sharing our results. This starts when we deliver the apportionment counts to the president. This data determines the number of seats each state receives in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Then, we will share redistricting data with the states. This information will be used to redraw congressional and state legislative boundaries. Finally, we will release various 2020 data products to the public.

The design for the 2020 Census is for the 21st century. We are relying on advances in technology and available data to reduce cost, maximize quality and minimize risk. With less than 14 months to go until Census Day, all of us at the Census Bureau are working diligently to make sure we have the most accurate census in U.S. history, and we are well on our way to achieving that goal.

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