Census encourages other agencies to share data collection system

Allowing online responses to the American Community Survey will improve data collection while reducing costs, and other agencies can use the underlying technology for their own purposes.

census survey

Census's online option for the American Community Survey runs on a back-end system that other agencies can also use for data collection.

The Census Bureau is improving its data collection, saving money and helping other agencies do the same – and, according to its leadership, enhancing value for its customers.

How? By putting one of its biggest surveys online.

On Dec. 17 the Census Bureau announced that participants in its American Community Survey now will have the option of responding online. In the past, the system was paper-based and involved multiple steps between being filled out and the data being processed. Now, users can respond via secure website, saving money and, Census officials hope, increasing the number of respondents.

“In the long run, we see an opportunity to improve the quality of the survey. Collecting data online keeps us from having to mail questionnaires, and we don’t need someone to capture that data after it’s been filled out on paper and mailed back, which presents an opportunity to introduce errors,” said Frank Vitrano, associate director for the 2020 census. “Now, we can get the information directly from the source. It’s an improvement from both the quality perspective and the cost perspective.”

Vitrano said the agency does expect to see savings this year, but since only a few tests have been implemented so far, there is no dollar figure for estimated savings available yet. He said the survey typically costs between $240 million and $250 million per year, total.

According to a release from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the bureau could have saved $30 million if the 2010 census, the last major census, was made available online.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees the Census Bureau and is expected to succeed retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, on Dec. 19 commended the Census bureau for the move. Shifting to online surveys “will lead to greater efficiencies and potentially significant cost-savings," Carper said. “I am encouraged that the Bureau has put this smart idea into action in anticipation of 2020.”

The online ACS survey itself runs on a system called Centurion, a common infrastructure already in use across the Census Bureau for other applications, according to Brian McGrath, Census Bureau CIO and associate director of IT. An added bonus: the bureau partners with other agencies to allow broader use.

“This is very much a shared program,” McGrath said of the common infrastructure, which he said the Office of Management and Budget requested to be made available to other agencies for collecting data over the internet. For example, Census currently is doing surveys for the Bureau of Labor and Statistics using in-house infrastructure and capabilities, McGrath noted.

“In the long term, they don’t have to build new hardware and develop custom software – we use the systems we have in place and then transfer the data back to them for their analysis,” he said.

On the security side, besides adhering to government-wide security standards currently in place, Census stores the data in an in-house private cloud that has been a year and a half in the making, McGrath noted.

“Obviously, data security is a high priority for the bureau,” he said. “We retain high-value data assets within the construct of a private cloud. Everything remains on premise in a government facility under our authority and responsibility so we can insure its integrity.”

And while the ACS is new to the Internet, census data collection writ large is not. The ACS will become the 61st bureau survey that allows for online response, and McGrath said there have not been security issues in the past.

Security will be key in coming years as the Census Bureau gears up for the 2020 census, but Vitrano said it is still too early to say specifically how the web-based survey might be used in the next major census.

“We absolutely see this innovation as a step in the direction of having an internet response option in 2020. It’s too early to tell how it will be implemented – we have to see what happens over time,” Vitrano said. “This gives us an opportunity to test it out and get prepared for the big census in 2020.”

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