One year out, Census plans a busy final stretch

Tech supporting the 2020 census has performed well in testing, officials said at a Census Day event, but will it scale?

By Gil C shutterstock ID 175538990
 

The Census Bureau is confronting major tech challenges in the final year before the 2020 population count. With the census set to kick off on April 1, 2020, IT officials are looking to scale systems to make sure they can handle the massive influx of data that comes with counting more than 300 million people.

"A lot of the technology has proven and tested in the field with real people and real answers," said agency CIO Kevin Smith following a panel of bureau officials at a Census Day event hosted by the National Press Club. "The things we're working on right now [are] testing out the final stages of performance testing."

Smith also said that the bureau is "using the best of what the cloud has to offer," and is "going through the final stages of doing performance tests to make sure it will sustain the capabilities it needs to for internet self-response, as well as some of the technology features we will need for enumeration."

Given the early testing results, Smith said, Census has no reason "to think that the system won't scale."

Cybersecurity also remains a top concern for the bureau, which has enlisted help from federal agencies and social media companies to help it combat threats to undermine participation and the accuracy of the count.

Another new development ahead of 2020 is the bureau's use of immigration data from the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics. Census Director Steven Dillingham emphasized that all data, even that coming from other agencies, is only used for statistical purposes "of verification." He did not, however, confirm whether the data would be used to verify responses to a planned question on citizenship that is the subject of legal challenges.

"All information, administrative data, that we get, we will carefully use it, protect it, and [it] will only be used for our purposes, including an accurate and complete count," he said. As to what the bureau would do with those records if the question is ultimately not included on the census, he said, "we'll have to see what the court says."

There are also external challenges that could influence the bureau's ability to count everyone.

The White House proposed $7.2 billion in its fiscal year 2020 budget request, which falls well below Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' estimated funding level. Outside census experts have said it is far too low for the bureau to complete all it needs to in the decade's final year.

The watchdog group the Census Project called the White House's number "shockingly low."

Smith said that the $7.2 billion accounts for all the tech funding the bureau needs.

"The things we need for IT are within the budget, and we can work within the budget to meet what we need," said Smith.

Al Fontenot, associate director of the decennial census program, said that "the full operation of the 2020 census as planned today, and as executed today, is within the scope of the current budget submission."

That includes funding for the 2019 census test added by the bureau to get data, beyond the surveys of respondent attitudes and focus groups, on the citizenship question.

The test, Fontenot said, will go out to 480,000 households, half of which will receive a form with a question on citizenship, the other half will not. He added the test will be self-response only -- the bureau will not send people into the field for non-response follow-up. Mailing for that test has already begun.

"We're using that to help plan our field staffing for later next year," he said. "So that's the purpose of that test, to really plan out our staffing requirements."

President Donald Trump complained about opposition to addition of the citizenship question on Twitter on April 1. He tweeted the results of the census would be "meaningless" without the citizenship question and that the cost of the census, about $15.6 billion, was "ridiculous."

Two federal judges have already ruled against the addition of the question, and six former census directors and the bureau's own advisors have opposed the question on the grounds that it would lead to a less accurate count. Whether the question will appear is still up in the air.

Census officials have said the printing of forms will begin July 1, and the Supreme Court is expected to take up the question later in April.

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