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Detroit Counts on Tech to Prep for the 2020 Census

After a poor response rate in the 2010 Census, Detroit is developing a data-driven campaign to increase the accuracy of the city's population count, with an eye on expanding federal support and increasing civic pride.

Detroit officials estimate that somewhere between 26,000 and 27,000 households in the city did not respond to the 2010 U.S. Census, and, therefore, were not counted.

As a result, the city lost a congressional seat and fell below a million residents, a blow to civic pride. It also likely missed out on increased federal funding for vital programs related to health and education. As the 2020 U.S. Census now approaches, Detroit is determined to avoid a repeat of the last count, turning to data-driven methodologies, improved technology in the field and other tech-based efforts to achieve a more accurate count of its residents, according to Victoria Kovari, the executive director of Detroit’s 2020 Census campaign.

“We don’t want to lose another congressional seat like we lost 10 years ago and the 10 years before that,” Kovari said. “So, it’s really important we get people counted, that we get people represented.”

Tamara Kamara, an enterprise applications manager for the city, is helping with these efforts as well. The specifications of Detroit’s entire Census campaign — including the exact ways in which it will use technology — is still coming into focus. However, Kamara said the effort is currently in a stage where those involved are “throwing everything up on the wall” and seeing what will stick. Much of what the team is contemplating involves leveraging data the city already has so that organizers can make better decisions with their resources.

Some of the most important data shows the areas of the city that had the lowest response percentage in 2010. Organizers are using this information layered atop extensive demographic maps to pick out 170 Census tracts they’ll need to prioritize in their field operations, rather than deploying additional personnel in areas that are already likely to respond. It’s a lot like election strategies used in politics, which stress the value of getting out the vote in areas that are traditionally less likely to vote, once you have the base locked down.

They will also use demographic data within these tracks to guide the messaging that appears on everything from billboards to social media. Detroit wants to deputize certain community residents who already live in these areas and are trusted by their neighbors, family and friends. These are the types of people others in the community are most likely to pick up a phone call from, because they know doing so will mean earning goodwill or a favor.

“It’s the people who know the first names of their neighbors’,” Kovari said, “and what we’re doing now is figuring out the technology they need to report back to us.”

This will likely involve some combination of devices, a data plan, Wi-Fi and unlimited texting. One key idea is the use of a constant feedback loop, so that the deputized captains are told when they hit internal milestones like a 50, 60, or 70 percent response rate, rather than just getting a retroactive report once the Census has finished. This will serve as an incentive to continue working as the process stretches on, and it could be that the captains — more than 200 of which are currently being recruited — are kept informed through text messaging.

“It’s a constant feedback loop that tells people they’re doing a good job,” Kovari siad. “Rah rah rah. As opposed to at the end just telling them they’ve only done 30 percent. We know we can do that through text messaging, and that it’s really, really cheap.”

This street-level Census work also has the potential to have a lasting impact on the city’s broader data-driven governance efforts, said Kat Hartman, Detroit’s director of innovation and emerging technology. Hartman and her team will be helping the Census campaign with developing innovative tools to raise the percentage of people counted, as well as getting the city’s address file and the associated data in useful shape.

“We’ve talked about really fun and exciting things as we use this opportunity to better validate our central address file for the city,” Hartman said. “One thing I’m really excited about is using the priority of the Census to help us get some of our data governance aspects aligned. One thing I repeat a lot is let’s make this central address file work for this Census, the next Census, and everything in between.”

For example, city officials could work closely with developers and others in the construction industry to make sure the city gets data about any new dwellings as quickly as possible. Detroit is not the only city working hard to prepare. Indeed, the 2020 Census is something every major city in the country is taking seriously.

Civis Analytics recently published a white paper about 2020 Census participation, stressing the importance of working toward accurate data and calling the Census “a key factor in disbursing $675 billion in federal funding.” That research notes that the expectation for many is that the Census count will be lower than expected due to tighter funding for Census efforts as compared to 2010, the potential addition of a question about citizenship and data showing that response rates to all surveys have fallen in recent times. Civis research stresses the use of effective messaging — the type Detroit is hoping to foster — in raising response rates.

In terms of other cities, Detroit is looking to Baltimore for advice. While Detroit experienced a drop in the number of people counted from 70 percent to 64 percent in 2010, Baltimore saw its count rise by 5 percent. Detroit is looking to emulate Baltimore’s messaging campaign, which was internally called 4X10, as in 4 minutes for 10 questions that will impact 10 years — and also you should encourage 10 of your friends.

What will be crucial, organizers noted, is whether the federal government shares response rates as the Census is unfolding, so that they know how to continue deploying resources as the counting progresses. Still, in the early stages of the Detroit campaign, the organizers involved are optimistic.

There’s a lot at stake, and it’s not all money.

"In order for us to maintain what we have, we need to be counted,” Kamara said. “When we slipped under a million, it hit all of us really hard. There’s a pride, and I’d like our messaging to tap into that. No, we’re not this dwindling, dying city. If you live in Detroit, you live here because you want to be here, because you really love this city.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.