2020 census is counting on technology

The goal is to have at least 60 percent of the next decennial count's responses submitted electronically.

Placeholder Image for Article Template

Census Bureau officials want to do away with paper-based surveys for the majority of Americans.

The well-documented problems with federal IT procurement are causing some to rethink grand-scale projects, but in at least one corner of the bureaucracy, planning continues for a dramatic increase in online interaction with the public.

The Census Bureau's goal is to have at least 60 percent of responses for the 2020 census submitted electronically, driving down the cost for postage, paper and employees' time, said CIO Brian McGrath. Given the size and scope of the survey, not to mention its constitutional mandate, bureau officials have already begun looking into how the goal can be achieved.

The decennial count's massive data collection presents a twofold security challenge familiar to anyone who has followed the HealthCare.gov saga: ensuring data integrity while protecting the privacy of individuals' information.

"I think the biggest challenge to make an Internet self-response option successful is to gain the trust and confidence of the American public that the data that they are providing online is secure and it's safe, both in transit and in our databases," McGrath said. "The other challenge is one of communication, which is getting the word out to the American public that an [Internet] option is available."

The bureau is buying URLs that officials fear could otherwise be exploited by hackers trying to set up phony sites with similar names. But no matter how many precautions are taken, some people will not want to report their information online.

"I think we have a sense that some people are concerned about privacy and about their personal information, and it may be that those individuals are simply not going to want to do this online," said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center.

The solution is to give those individuals access to traditional means -- paper or in-person interviews -- to share their information.

Ensuring data integrity

The other side of the security equation is figuring out how the government can guarantee that the data it is receiving is correct.

"We have to...ensure that the responses we receive are in fact legitimate responses and we don't receive multiple responses from the same household," McGrath said. "But in many ways, it's the same problem that we faced in 2010, where someone could have filled out multiple forms."

He said the bureau will likely use some sort of cloud-based solution to store the data. "I think from a cost and efficiency perspective, the public cloud is going to play a significant role in the architecture for the 2020 online solution."

But whether to build an in-house cloud or contract with a private-sector provider has yet to be determined. McGrath said any procurement activity will probably happen in fiscal 2017 or 2018.

"Clearly, we would need to augment staff to build a survey of the size, scope and complexity of the 2020 decennial census, with [additional] contract resources," he said.

Time to test

As the calendar flips to another year, other questions remain unanswered, such as whether the online survey would be available nationwide simultaneously or only in certain areas during certain times to regulate the massive input of data.

And then there's the activity that has bedeviled HealthCare.gov: testing. Although McGrath recognizes that it is difficult, if not impossible, to simulate the size and scope of the census, the bureau has several opportunities to test an Internet response option before the actual survey.

About half of the responses to the bureau's American Community Survey, which samples a small percentage of the population every year, have come via the Internet, and McGrath said the 2017 economic census will be paperless. Additionally, the bureau conducts about 100 surveys online annually for itself and other agencies.

"We'll engage in a whole series of performance-testing activities to simulate the load," he said.

The American Community Survey has more questions and might seem more intrusive than the census, Keeter said. In that respect, positive results from that survey suggest that scaling the census for the entire population is not an insurmountable task.

"As I understand it from people who do this kind of work, the problem of scaling a survey up to deal with large demand is one that's pretty well understood by data scientists," Keeter said.

Although he could not address the feasibility of the bureau's goal for online responses, he was confident that officials were taking the right approach and had the track record to support it.

"There's reason to believe that with proper planning -- and that's, of course, an important caveat -- the Census [Bureau] will be able to allocate enough available server capacity and other computing capacities to handle this," he said.

Keeter said the task faced by the bureau is relatively simple compared with the one HealthCare.gov confronted.

"It turned out that the capacity issue was not fundamentally the major source of [HealthCare.gov's] problems," he said. "It was a problem in the very beginning, but it had to do more with the integration of multiple datasets, the need to look up information from existing government databases and to integrate it in a way that really was beyond the scope of anything that I think any of the folks working on it had anticipated or experienced before. By contrast, the census task is much simpler. They're essentially administering a survey, and the extent to which the need to have the survey itself connect to other databases is considerably smaller, if it's necessary at all."

Considering BYOD

The Census Bureau has some experience in online data collection in the field. Census takers used purpose-built handheld devices to validate addresses for the 2010 census. But allowing them to gather data using their personal devices was considered a technological bridge too far last time around.

"In 2010...there were two operations that the [purpose-built] device was intended to accommodate," McGrath said. "The first was address canvassing, where we went out to every address across the country to validate the address, and the technology and the handheld did work, it actually worked rather effectively for that operation. Where we experienced some complexities was around the enumeration operation, where we would've used the device to actually go out and collect the response."

This time could be different. McGrath said bureau officials are considering a system that would allow census takers to use their own devices to collect data, which would immediately be transmitted to a cloud or other storage infrastructure, thereby alleviating security concerns.

"What we can do is secure the application and the data that they put on that device and certainly ensure the security of the data in transit between the device and our infrastructure," McGrath said.

Although that might make people feel more secure, there is the question of whether census workers will want to give the government access to their personal smartphones and tablet PCs.

"If we're using personally owned equipment, what, if any, concerns do the employees have with the government having access, and what type of access would we have to that device to ensure the security, integrity and availability of the data?" Keeter asked.

Answers to those questions have yet to be worked out.

NEXT STORY: FAA picks UAV test sites

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.