Census Bureau supports releasing address database, official says

In a reversal from previous years, the U.S. Census Bureau now leans toward endorsing repealing sections of federal law under Title 13 to allow the release of its nationwide address database, a senior official said.

The census would support public release of addresses but not names, phone numbers, ages or any other personal information collected by the census, Michael Ratcliffe, assistant division chief for geocartographic products in the bureau’s geography division, said Sept 13 at the 2011 Geospatial Summit in Herndon, Va.

Under Title 13, all information collected by the census must be kept confidential to preserve privacy rights. This covers names, phone numbers, addresses and geospatial coordinates, among other data.

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Meanwhile, although Google and other Internet companies display nearly every street address in the country publicly on the Web through a sharing of private address databases, the census and other state and local agencies are not able to leverage common address information and they operate with inefficiencies and gaps in their address databases, Ratcliffe said.

By repealing sections of Title 13, the census would be able to release its data publicly and to state and local agencies.

“The census bureau is willing to talk about a repeal,” Ratcliffe said. “A few years ago, the answer would have been ‘no.’ Now, we are willing.”

“The payoff would be greater efficiency,” Ratcliffe continued. “We could leverage local, state and federal coordination for addresses.”

Audience members at the geospatial summit noted that many states and communities are spending large sums of money to develop and maintain accurate and up-to-date address databases that are critical for public safety, police and fire services.

They also noted the difficulties of sharing address information across borders, recognizing that each locality may store its address information in a different electronic format. If the census releases a nationwide database of addresses, presumably that would lead to greater interoperability of address information.

But others also warned of “Big Brother” fears if the government is in charge of public address information. On the other hand, with Google and Bing maps offering nationwide address coverage already, some feel the privacy concerns are overdrawn and the “cat is out of the bag.”

The geospatial summit was sponsored by 1105 Media, Inc., the parent company of Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Thu, Sep 15, 2011

Regarding "“The payoff would be greater efficiency,” Ratcliffe continued. “We could leverage local, state and federal coordination for addresses.”" Mussolini made the trains run on time. Is it really necessary to explain to people why being REQUIRED to answer Census questions means that information isn't open? Your date and location of birth, address, parents, number of siblings, etc., and name are all public records, but does that mean you want the federal government to REQUIRE you to tell them, then give that information to states and local agencies, who will then give out or sell that information in easily-accessed form? There's a reason the Constitution is "negative rights," and it isn't because they can be trusted not to do things for us on our behalf without our permission.

Wed, Sep 14, 2011

I believe what Census advocated with regard to Title 13 was not "repeal" but "amend". Information about individuals is not the same as information about places (i.e. street addresses) and those two concepts should be separated. It is ironic that we fear government as "big brother" when in fact the private sector already has all of that address data - and more - and that it is already publicly available from the private sector, yet backward and antiquated thinking essentially mandates individual stovepipes for individually, redundantly collecting this information about places, and prohibits any sharing of that information, at federal, state, and local levels alike, resulting in what is easily billions of dollars of otherwise avoidable expense at federal, state and local levels.

Wed, Sep 14, 2011

One way to reduce costs is have the Census Bureau only collect the Constitutional mandated items: how may US citizens are there and in what states do they live in. All other demographic information should be confidential.

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