The U.S. Census Bureau is in the middle of an experiment to see if online data collection in the next nose-count of Americans.
To streamline the process and reduce costs in 2020, the government is testing new ways to count its citizens — and Costal Georgia and South Carolina are the laboratory.
For decades, folks have responded to the census through the U.S. Postal Service, filling out forms and sending them in. To track those slow to answer, the bureau then would employ thousands of extra workers to collect information door to door.
The bureau will use the Internet for the first time in 2020, asking Americans to fill out questionnaires using a computer or smartphone. A reduced force of census workers then will follow up with tablets and other handheld Wi-Fi devices. The new system is expected to save taxpayers $5 billion.
“This isn’t cutting edge. This is technology most of us already use quite frequently,” said bureau drector John H. Thompson, who recently was in Savannah to discuss a test. “In our mobile society, this is how people will respond to the census.”
Thompson and his team say it’s important to work out any snags early. They chose Savannah and its surrounding areas as one of two test sites that will dictate how the rest of the country will hear about the 2020 Census. Data collected from Savannah will be used to assess the efficacy of the Census Bureau’s early-response campaign; the other test site in Arizona will focus mostly on “non-response follow-up.”
Selected for its ethnic and economic diversity as well as an ideal urban-to-rural ratio, the Savannah testing area consists of 20 counties, including Bryan, Liberty and Long counties in Georgia, and three in South Carolina.
Approximately 338,000 households exist within the test area, a total of 923,000 people. The area’s ethnic breakdown is 59 percent white and 30 percent African-American; Hispanic, Asian and other groups compose the remainder.
The bureau collects information about age, gender, income and ethnicity to help determine new infrastructure, how to allocate funds and dozens of vital statistical uses. Participation is required by law, though there are always those who don’t want the government to know where they live, let alone that they exist.
Thompson hopes that an emphasis on building community partnerships will increase early participation. The Rev. Thurman Tillman of First African Baptist Church will help spread the word through churches and neighborhood groups in Savannah.
“People respond to something when it comes from someone they trust,” Tillman said.
The White House reported in 2013 that 98 percent of Americans had access to basic broadband, and other studies show that 80 percent have Internet access at home. An average of 72.9 percent of households in the Savannah area have Internet subscriptions, but that statistic drops dramatically in rural areas.
“I think the numbers where I live are far lower than that,” Jeff Davis Ledger editor Tommy Purser said of the Internet-connected households in his hometown of Hazlehurst.
A hundred miles from any urban center, Jeff Davis County is one of the most remote spots in the test area. Purser anticipates the challenges of getting his neighbors to participate and plans to use the Ledger to help the Census 2015 test campaign reach residents.
“Some people don’t understand the importance of this,” he said. “But we’re going to partner with folks and do our best.”
Residents can sign up for email or text alerts through the “Notify Me” at www.census.gov/2015. The entire census questionnaire became available Monday and can be completed by May 31. The test data are being collected to help design the final system and will not be kept as official statistics. Participants still will have to fill out the 2020 census.
“The primary focus of this test is to figure out how to motivate people to respond via the Internet,” Thompson said.