2020 Census: Internet, rural broadband, and data privacy

2020 Census: Internet, rural broadband, and data privacy

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Every 10 years, the US Census Bureau runs a count of each person living in the US. We’re honored to chair the business subcommittee of the Austin-Travis County Census 2020 Complete Count Committee, a volunteer committee tasked with increasing awareness and motivation of residents to respond to the 2020 Census. In addition to our work with the committee, we’ll be providing the community with information on the Census and its challenges. This is the sixth article in a series covering these issues leading up to the 2020 Census, which launches April 1, 2020. In this post, we outline the methods involved with conducting the census. Review our most recent post on funding the census and our first post for an overview of the census and why every count matters.

From the first census in 1790, when officials fanned out across America on horseback to get a count of the almost 4 million U.S. citizens, to today, with a  U.S. population of 329 million, the Census Bureau has undergone numerous changes in order to more efficiently and accurately get a count. In keeping up with technological advances and the widespread use of internet, the 2020 Census will be conducted online for the first time in history. 

According to the 2020 Census Detailed Operational Plan for Internet Self-Response

“The goal of the Internet Self-Response (ISR) operation is to communicate the importance of responding to the 2020 Census to the U.S. population and generate the largest possible self response in order to reduce the need to conduct expensive in-person follow-up.”

The ISR works towards this goal in three main ways:

  1. The ISR develops communication and contact strategies to encourage the use of the internet as the primary response mode through a sequence of invitations and reminder mailings.
  2. In order to increase high-quality responses through increasing the opportunity to and flexibility with which a person can respond, the ISR provides an internet application that respondents can use at any time from nearly any location to respond online. This application can be used across most devices and browsers and can be displayed in multiple languages.
  3. The ISR operation works to increase response to the census by working with other operations to provide the opportunity to respond using other collection modes.

How are parts of rural America without access to broadband internet going to be affected by this Census digitization? According to Census Bureau statistics, only 65% of counties where 100% of the population is in a rural area have a subscription to any sort of broadband internet. Many of these rural areas have low-response rates and require expensive follow-up procedures. In order to reserve resources and ensure ease of response, these areas with low rates of internet subscriptions will receive paper questionnaires first along with an invitation to respond online. 

But what about data privacy? In lieu of the alarming work of a team of researchers in 2016 that was able to successfully reconstruct nearly half of the 2010 Census’ 308,745,538 respondents records, the Census Bureau has forged ahead in shoring up data privacy standards. John Abowd, chief scientist at the U.S. Census Bureau and leader of the 2016 study, has led the charge implementing cutting edge “differential privacy” techniques for the upcoming Census. 

“The process intentionally injects noise, or random variables, into the system, an approach used by tech giants in popular consumer products everywhere from the Google Chrome web browser to Apple iPhones to Microsoft Windows.”

While not without its shortcomings, digitizing the Census and utilizing online response methods will help reduce costs and also makes it easier to provide multiple language translations— the 2020 Census will have 12 non-English languages, 7 more than were on the 2010 Census. No census is 100% accurate, and while the 2020 Census will be no different, the Census Bureau’s use of digital address canvassing, technology to optimize field worker assignments, an online response option, and administrative records are designed to help ensure an efficient and accurate count of the population in 2020.

Future installments will address the following topics and challenges as they relate to the 2020 Census:

  • District maps, gerrymandering, voting rights and civil rights enforcement

What topics are you interested in? What would you like to be covered? Tweet @AustinTech with census topics you’d like to learn more about.

This post was researched and written by Jada Fraser on behalf of Austin Tech Alliance.


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