2020 Census: Tech and the Private Sector

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 third article of a series covering these issues leading up to the 2020 Census, which launches April 1, 2020. In this post, we outline why the census matters to tech and the private sector. Review our most recent post about hard to count populations and our first post for an overview of the census and why every count matters.

The US Census plays in important role in facilitating informed business development. Census data helps companies decide where to locate distribution centers to best serve their customers; where to expand local new stores and where they have the best chance of seeing a high return on investment. To sell products and services, businesses large and small need good information on the location of potential customers and how much money they might have to spend. The census provides the highest-quality and most consistent data pertaining to these items, and businesses have come to depend on it on it to make critical choices. Because of the importance of this information, businesses have a particular concern with the integrity of that data.

“The 2020 census is used to help construct many other data products produced by the federal government,” said Michael R. Strain, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute who writes frequently on the importance of census data for policymakers and the private sector.

“Some of those products are heavily used by businesses when determining where to open new stores and expand operations, or even what items to put on their shelves. This affects retail businesses, for sure, but businesses in many other sectors as well,” he added “Education-related data from the census and the ACS inform a variety of research and programming decisions in the education sector, such as those involving: Carl T. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act Programs. These programs use census population estimates to allocate funding for career and technical education grant programs.”

The 2020 Census marks the first time in national history that high-tech will be utilized to count the U.S. population.

While cost-saving and efficiency-improving, implementation of a tech-necessary census response method could lead to poor or uneven participation, technological infrastructure failings, or both, thus increasing the undercount of those historically underrepresented in the census. This issue pits the importance of modernizing the census against the risks and challenges that un-tested technology presents. “The unprecedented reliance on information and communications technology for the 2020 Census–especially through the internet-based household response method–comes with promise and peril. Policymakers have little time left to get it right and ensure that we have the fair and accurate count that the people of this country deserve and rely on,” says Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Compounding these pertinent issue areas is the current state of the Census Bureau itself. To ensure an accurate and fully inclusive count, the Census Bureau must have the necessary resources to test new technologies and be ready for potential pitfalls. These concerns are neither theoretical nor off in the distance,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference Education Fund. Congress has chronically underfunded the Census Bureau for most of the decade: former Census director John Thompson recounted that the Bureau “has been underfunded by about $200 million” since 2012. The effects have been detrimental. The Bureau cancelled tests in 2017, slimmed down the 2018 End-to-End Test, and has been delayed in testing its IT systems for 2020 because of funding uncertainties. Most at risk are operations specifically designed to enumerate historically hard-to-count communities more accurately. In addition, there remains a leadership vacuum at the Bureau following the unexpected resignation of the Census Director in June.

It is especially important for the tech community to raise awareness of these potential pitfalls in addition to stressing the importance of “every head counting.” 

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

  • Citizenship
  • Funding the census
  • Methods: Internet, rural broadband, and data privacy
  • 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.