The blog of the Urban Institute
May 31, 2019

How Organizations with Data and Technology Skills Can Play a Critical Role in the 2020 Census

The 2020 Census is less than a year away, and it’s facing new challenges that could result in an inaccurate count. The proposed inclusion of a citizenship question, the lack of comprehensive and unified messaging, and the new internet-response option could worsen the undercount of vulnerable and marginalized communities and deprive these groups of critical resources.

The US Census Bureau aims to count every US resident. But some groups are more likely to be missed than others. Communities of color, immigrants, young children, renters, people experiencing homelessness, and people living in rural areas have long been undercounted in the census. Because the census count is used to apportion federal funding and draw legislative districts for political seats, an inaccurate count means that these populations receive less than their fair share of resources and representation.

Local governments and community-based organizations have begun forming Complete Count Committees, coalitions of trusted community voices established to encourage census responses, to achieve a more accurate count in 2020. Local organizations with data and technology skills—like civic tech groups, libraries, technology training organizations, and data intermediaries—can harness their expertise to help these coalitions achieve a complete count.

As the coordinator of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), we are learning about 2020 Census mobilization in communities across the country. We have found that data and technology groups are natural partners in this work; they understand what is at risk in 2020, are embedded in communities as trusted data providers, and can amplify the importance of the census.

Threats to a complete count

The proposed citizenship question, currently being challenged in court, would likely suppress the count of immigrants and households in immigrant communities in the US. Though federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from disclosing individual-level data, even to other agencies, people may still be skeptical about the confidentiality of the data or generally distrust the government. Acknowledging these fears is important for organizations partnering in outreach to vulnerable communities.

Another potential hurdle is that, for the first time, the Census Bureau will encourage people to complete their census forms online (though answering by mail or phone will still be options). Though a high tech census could be more cost-effective, the digital divide compounded by the underfunding of the Census Bureau that limited initial testing of new methods and outreach could worsen the undercount.

Community groups are concerned about people’s internet access, digital literacy, and comfort with providing information online. The Census Bureau will still follow up with calls and visits to households that do not self-respond (though it is reducing the number of in-person follow-ups in 2020), but proactively supporting people with limited access to or comfort with technology will give communities the best shot at a full count of all residents.

How data and technology groups can get involved

To combat these threats to a complete count, organizations already operating at the intersection of data and community engagement can serve as trusted messengers about the importance of the census and lend support to local planning and outreach.

To get started, organizations can investigate existing resources. The NNIP compiled a list of key resources for organizations to get started, such as websites for Census 2020 partners and the Census Counts coalition.

Next, organizations can identify ongoing local efforts, like Complete Count Committees, that they can plug into. Many local and state governments have formed these committees in preparation for 2020.

Data and technology groups can provide analytic support to advocacy organizations to hone their messaging and target outreach. They can also weave information about the 2020 Census into current communications to amplify the importance of the census and to show how an undercount can affect how federal funding flows into a community. And they can translate data from tools like the City University of New York’s Hard to Count Map—which shows areas with large numbers of hard-to-count populations—and help connect the dots to how these data could inform outreach priorities.

Local data sources can be used to identify recent trends and provide more detail. Voter turnout is an indicator for civic engagement and the potential likelihood of census participation. Mapping recent births would reveal neighborhoods with growth in populations of young children. Data-savvy organizations can track these trends to strengthen local outreach efforts.

Organizations can also tailor their messages to inform groups that are already connected to populations more likely to be missed, such as young children. Our San Antonio partner presented to ReadyKidSA, a local coalition of nonprofits serving young children and families, on hard-to-count communities in Bexar County, the implications of an undercount on federal funding for programs serving local children and families, and initial steps for involvement. Making the connection to the coalition’s priorities persuaded members to encourage the families they serve to complete the census.

Finally, groups can use data to emphasize the need for community support and forge new partnerships. The Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance created a local interactive map on indicators about access to computers and the internet and is completing an ecosystem map of digital inclusion groups to identify potential allies for outreach.

We have one chance to get the census count right, and we all have a role to play. As researchers, data organizations, and technologists, we must do what we can to ensure all the members of our community are counted.

Illustration by Michele Paccione via Shutterstock.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.