A Census Bureau enumerator uses a smartphone to conduct an interview with a citizen.

Oct 26 2020

ReImagine Nation ELC 2020: Census Met the Deadline with New Technology

Sophisticated mapping techniques and special devices for in-person interviews made up for time lost to the pandemic.

Technology was always going to play a role in the 2020 U.S. Census, billed as the nation’s first digital count. However, in this particular year, the count would not have been a success without it, Census Bureau officials say.

Despite a pandemic that temporarily halted the count, changed deadlines and forced the bureau to rethink the way it conducted in-person interviews — not to mention hurricanes and wildfires that displaced residents and complicated the count in parts of the country — the count was 99.98 percent complete when it officially ended Oct. 15, according to Stephen Buckner, assistant director of communications at the Census Bureau.

About 67 percent of those responses came through the very first online tally of U.S. residents, a project that many critics thought was doomed to fail, Buckner said Monday at the virtual ReImagine Nation ELC 2020 conference. 

“Our online responses never went down. We never had one minute of downtime,” he said. “Everyone thought we would, but if we had failed, the Census reputation would have been tarnished and would have been difficult to rebuild.”

Geolocation, iPhones Kept Census on Track

The census count, which happens every 10 years, is the government’s largest regularly scheduled project. It takes years of preparation to identify every one of the nation’s residential addresses, to hire hundreds of thousands of temporary workers and to stand up the systems that support the count of the 330 million people who live in the United States.

For the 2020 count, the bureau turned to new methods for many of these processes. Instead of sending out workers on foot to verify that addresses still existed, it used aerial maps, geolocation and U.S. Postal Service information. 

Enumerators — the temporary workers who follow up with households that don’t respond online or by mail — used iPhone 8s that contained not only the addresses that needed a visit but the most efficient route to follow to get to all those houses and the best times of day to find someone at home.

They were able to upload follow-up information immediately to the Census Bureau, eliminating the need for a trip back to the office and more paperwork, and they were also able to submit payroll information.

The new technology sped up productivity rates to 1.92 cases resolved per hour, compared with 1.01 cases per hour in the “all-paper environment” of 2010, said Albert Fontenot Jr., associate director for decennial census programs, at a Census Bureau briefing earlier this month.

The count was completed in just 2 1/2 months, less than the four to five months the bureau had sketched out prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the assistance of the new technology.

“Technology has advanced significantly over the last 10 years,” he said. “We scheduled the count just like we had in 2010 and 2000, but we did not take into consideration that computers are faster, technology is faster and a lot of the processes can happen faster.”

READ MORE: The Census Bureau worked closely with CDW to deploy its iPhone Device as a Service program.

Census Customers’ Digital Experience Mattered

Census officials spent time before the count began working not only on new technology to make the process more efficient but on the digital experience that U.S. residents would have when they logged on to get counted.

This was a challenge, Buckner said, since funding requests are generally made as far in advance as two years before the money is available. “It’s hard to plan for IT that way because technology changes so fast,” he added.

Determined to give residents an enjoyable experience, officials focused on making response simple. For example, people could fill out their census forms on their smartphones: “Almost everyone has a cellphone,” Buckner said, “and we designed mobile-first.”

In some areas, the Census website would display a photo of the responder’s home city for a personalized feel.

Going online meant that the bureau had to “redefine our operating model,” Buckner said. “We had our fair share of challenges. Transformation was not just one and done — it had to persist across the organization.”

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U.S. Census Bureau