The Challenges of Collecting and Analyzing US Census Information

How Technology Will Change US Census InformationA former Census Bureau director once bewailed the problems facing his agency. There were so many people, he said, and so many questions that needed answering. “Even with the aid of elaborate machines,” he said, “the Census Bureau can scarcely hope to keep within the limits of money and time … in tabulating the results of so many inquiries.”

That was in 1910, and things haven’t changed much since then. The decennial Census is still filled out by hand, and the government dispatches live people (“enumerators”) to follow up on the households who don’t respond to the paper questionnaire.

But things could be changing, albeit slowly. The 2010 census cost $14.7 billion, and then-director Robert Groves agreed that that’s simply too much.

Future censuses could be conducted mainly over the Internet, an option countries like Canada already offer. In other countries, administrative data like post office records, tax records, and information from credit card companies supplement census data.

The United States is a special case, observers say, because the government isn’t simply trying to count people: To properly allocate the right number of seats in the House of Representatives, the U.S. Census must count people in the right place.

Using the Web to conduct the census would cut costs, but would also make it difficult to track groups that have less access to technology. It also wouldn’t solve the response problem–some people just don’t trust the government enough to trust it with their personal information. But, says Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an advocate of making the census more efficient, “If they do 70 percent of it online, you have all the resources left” to follow up with the remaining 30 percent.

The Census Bureau is also experimenting with the ways it presents its information after it’s collected. Last year, the bureau released an API (application program interface) that allows anyone to write a program to interpret, connect with, and build on census data that was recognized by Computerworld magazine as a “visionary application of information technology.”

The bureau also posts weekly visualizations to a demo gallery intended to showcase the breadth and depth of data available to the public.

Image credit: United States Census Bureau