Surveyors push for data sharing with states ahead of 2020 census


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ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Federal surveyors are asking states for help collecting data as the nationwide 2020 census approaches. 

In a presentation here at the National States Geographic Information Council’s midyear conference, a pair of Census Bureau staffers told state geographic information systems and IT leaders their governments could reap financial benefits if they share address locations and other geographic data as surveyors begin the arduous process of counting every person in the country. 

To emphasize the value of collaboration, Greg Hanks, geographic operations adviser for the bureau, noted that census data guides the federal government as it distributes an average of $440 billion in funds each year.

Accordingly, Nathan Jones, a geographer with the bureau, implored state staffers to work with the feds to share geographic address data so they can pinpoint the exact location of each residence they’ll be studying as they seek to understand who lives there.

“Your help is going to help us continue to produce quality data,” Jones said. “And at the end of the day, the data that Census produces helps distribute a ton of federal funding. It doesn’t just affect all of us in the room, it really affects everyone — everyone in our communities. So it’s really, really important that we get this right.”

But while Jones tried to make the value of data-sharing clear, some in the crowd expressed frustration that not everyone involved in the process understood the importance of collaboration.

In particular, Jeff Smith, framework development manager for the Ohio Geographically Referenced Information Program, voiced his concern that many workers in his state fail to appreciate the importance of the census when it comes to handing out federal dollars until they see an exact breakdown of how improved data on geographic boundaries or population density guides the government in funding certain programs. Accordingly, he suggested that the bureau start developing a guide for states that makes the value of collaboration clear, and Hanks agreed.

“Let’s capture the value statement,” Hanks said. “‘They’ve got enough of my data, we’re good.’ That mentality could be compromising. Every address counts.”

[Read more: DOT clears hurdles in national address database effort]

Hanks also stressed that information sharing will be a crucial part of the bureau’s efforts to revamp its surveying strategy for the census — the agency is hoping to save more than $5 billion compared to its 2010 census by using more technologically advanced methods.

Specifically, he said the bureau hopes to conduct an “in-office canvass” of all the addresses in the nation, identifying the physical locations of each address using a mixture of state data, information from the U.S. Postal Service and satellite images.

Hanks believes that effort will help them avoid sending workers “block by block” to each address in the nation, the way they did in 2010. Instead, he estimates that the bureau will only have to personally visit a quarter of the country’s addresses, saving them tremendous amounts of time and money.

Additionally, Hanks said the bureau wants to develop a marketing strategy with cities and localities that would encourage more people to respond to census questions online or by phone.

He noted that the bureau worked with 20 counties around the Savannah, Georgia, area last year to create a messaging campaign about their surveys, featuring television ads and billboards. In all, Hanks said the bureau received roughly 35,000 responses via an online portal from people who never received direct contact from its staff, giving them some guidance about how similar outreach efforts might work going forward.

As 2020 gets closer, Hanks said the bureau is welcoming more suggestions on how it can best engage with the public in an age when companies already tend to bombard people with surveys.

“People are inundated for requests for information, and one more request is just that: one more request,” Hanks said. “We have to count people only once and in the right spot; so we have to find a way to combat that mindset.”

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Data Analytics, National States Geographic Information Council, Tech News, U.S. Census Bureau