Can ISPs help power the 2020 census?

Shutterstock. Photo copyright: Michele Paccione.

As it gears up for the decennial census in 2020, the Census Bureau might be better off partnering with Internet service providers (ISPs) rather than social networks or credit-reporting agencies, according to a comprehensive report by the JASON advisory group, a division of Mitre.

The November report, which was published on the Federation of American Scientists' website, also points to a critical need for Census to invest in its own research and development. The report is part of a push to obtain expert advice on automating the 2020 census, according to a bureau spokesperson.

When it comes to partnerships with the private sector, inclusivity trumps fraud prevention because the decennial census must be a complete count of the American population, not a statistically sound estimate based on sampling. With that consideration in mind, JASON noted that on a trade-off curve between confidence (that all answers are accurate) and inclusivity (with more fraudulent answers potentially accepted as accurate), Census' priorities should value the latter.

Furthermore, JASON researchers said they are "highly skeptical" about the prospect of banks, credit bureaus or social networks being of much help in Census' digital push.

Indeed, they dismissed fraud (ranging from families entering their pets' names on forms to concerted efforts to artificially boost a state's numbers) as a fairly low-level concern, especially if Census stays vigilant about any large-scale fraud attempts.

"The regrets of letting through a small number of bad forms -- especially if they [are] not part of any concerted scheme to skew census results -- may be much smaller than the regrets of systematically undercounting a known elusive population," the report states. "JASON thus believes that commercially available identity validation services would prove to be of very limited value in the 2020 census and does not recommend their use."

However, more than half of respondents are expected to respond via the Internet, so a better opportunity might lie with ISPs. JASON's report details how Census and major ISPs -- Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, to name a few -- could share information safely and confidentially, with users' permission.

Users' IP addresses could be used to corroborate their physical locations, a key element in an enumeration process aimed at linking people to where they live. JASON also suggested letting respondents submit photos of their house for validation purposes.

In addition, the report examines tech issues surrounding mobile devices, mailed URLs and QR codes, and administrative records. But in the end, Census needs to put its own people to work on R&D as it formulates its 2020 plans.

"JASON was left with a strong impression that [research and development] resources are inadequate and could usefully be increased," the report states, pointing to Census' outdated matching algorithms. "Anecdotally, JASON has a sense that the talent for [applied research] already exists within the bureau, but that the appropriate people and computer resources are now assigned to operational tasks."

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.


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