In coming weeks, the United States Census will launch a pilot program in Los Angeles, taking advantage of a large multi-ethnic population, varying levels of Internet access and a high number of vacant homes to test a new data-collection system in English, Spanish, Korean and Chinese.
The test — which will play out for the first time online and through phone surveys — is designed to save money and time when the government counts the estimated 330 million people in the country four years from now.
Over the next six weeks, the U.S. Census Bureau will mail several notices to 225,000 homes in the Los Angeles area asking people to go online and answer questions about how many people live in their home, how they are related and who owns the property.
Lisa Blumerman, associate director of the decennial census, said she expects about 60,000 of the 225,000 Southern California test homes won’t respond to the mailed reminders. Those who don't might get a knock on their door from a census worker, who, unlike in previous years, won’t be carrying a clipboard and pencil.
Instead, workers will use a phone and tablet application called Compass to immediately collect responses from the doorstep. The application notes that a response has been made from that address, meaning workers would need to make fewer unnecessary follow-up visits, Blumerman said. The application is being tested on both iPhone and Samsung devices.
“In the past ... it was all paper and pencil. They’d have a stack of questionnaires, they’d go out and fill it out, they’d have a stack of paper maps, they’d have to figure out where to go. Now, we’re doing all of that with automation,” Blumerman said.
It will also be the first time people can answer census workers' questions in English, Spanish, simplified Chinese or Korean.
“We want to make sure when we conduct the census that we can reach all communities, and part of being able to reach all communities to ensure an accurate and fair census is providing them ways that they can respond that make them feel comfortable,” Blumerman said.
The Los Angeles County test is a chance to see if the new systems recognize Chinese and Korean letters properly.
“We’re moving into the use of non-Roman characters,” she said.
A similar test focused on Spanish responses is being held in the Houston area at the same time.
(Also new in 2020 will be the chance to respond to the census by phone in languages including Vietnamese, Tagalog, Arabic and French.)
For Lydia Lee, the changes mean no more suspicious looks from people who struggled to answer the forms because they were in only English.
“I encountered many reluctant households concerned about why the government needed that information. They were concerned about privacy,” said Lee, 55, of Los Angeles.
Lee, who worked with the census in 2000 and 2010, expects this test, and the 2020 census overall, to be easier for people who don’t easily speak English.
“It’s going to be a totally different scenario,” she said. “If we have the Chinese form for someone that speaks Chinese, they are going to be helped.”
The census is even streamlining how it knocks on doors. Census officials asked FedEx and UPS about choosing best routes for workers to walk and what times people are more likely to be home to answer the door, Blumerman said.
“They are trying to get packages to your door and they have to get a lot of packages to your door,” Blumerman said. “We really wanted to learn from them, how their routing and their algorithms worked, because what we’re trying to do is get [workers] to people’s doors efficiently.”
Using more technology to conduct the test could shave $5 billion off what would otherwise be a more than $17-billion price tag for the census and prep work, Blumerman said.
Just comparing aerial photos of neighborhoods to look for changes will save $1 billion that would have been spent sending out workers to walk every block in America, Blumerman said.
“That allows us to do the vast majority of address canvassing in an office, where we have clerks at our national processing center in Jeffersonville, Ind., looking at two pictures, two vintages of imagery of a block, and looking to see if growth has occurred,” she said.
The census also plans to use existing federal public data, such as post office delivery information or tax filings, to determine whether anyone might live in a home before they send a worker to the residence to knock on the door. Eventually that will expand to using data collected by each state, such as which residences house a food stamp recipient, she said.
“There is no need for us to send a field worker to a vacant housing unit,” she said.
It may seem obvious, but it's a big leap for the census, which wasn't doing these things in 2010.
“We are bringing the census into the 21st century. We’re bringing modern technology, modern data, new information and using it in a holistic way for the entirety of the census that hasn’t been done before,” Blumerman said.
Getting it right matters, Blumerman said. The data collected during the constitutionally required count of the nation's population taken every decade is used to draw congressional districts and divvy up more than $400 billion in annual federal spending.
The number of residents on a particular street can determine where fire stations or schools are built.
“We want to make sure we count everyone once and only once and in the right place, and to do that requires a lot of effort on our part,” Blumerman said.
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