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First Digital U.S. Census Begins Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

For the first time ever, the nation’s decennial count of its citizens is enabling and stressing online responses, a method likely to be key as pandemic concerns limit public gatherings and keep people in their houses.

The U.S. Census has officially begun, with stakeholders estimating 140 million households will receive invitations to respond between March 12 and March 20.

The nationwide count, of course, happens every 10 years, and it is the largest peacetime mobilization of the United States government. What is different about the 2020 Census, however, is that for the first time, it is heavily digital, meaning that the U.S. Census Bureau is working hard to encourage citizens to respond online. The timing for this shift became particularly relevant this week, as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic swept the nation, vastly altering everyday life with its impacts, which have ranged from the cancellation of the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament to school closings nationwide to governors limiting public gatherings in their states.

With this in mind, it is perhaps fortunate that much work has been done to encourage that citizens respond to the Census digitally, meaning people can stay home out of caution, hop online and be counted. From a certain perspective, being less occupied with sports, concerts, conferences and commuting to work could even give citizens more time to complete the Census. Indeed, the U.S. Census Bureau is keen to point out that the new digital component broadens the scope of ways to respond, noting in a press release that, “The key message right now for anyone with questions about how COVID-19 will affect the 2020 Census: It has never been easier to respond on your own, whether online, over the phone or by mail — all without having to meet a Census taker.”

At the same time, over the past 18 months many experts have pointed out that increased emphasis on digital response creates new challenges, especially for communities that have traditionally been difficult to count. Those same communities are often on the wrong side of the digital divide, meaning their residents tend to lack access to the Internet or the skills to navigate online in a meaningful way. So, a key part of Census outreach has been encouraging people to go to libraries or other community centers in-person to get help filling out the Census online. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the coronavirus outbreak will make people hesitant or unable to spend time at such places.

As the Census Bureau notes on its website, it still plans to conduct follow-ups for citizens who have not responded starting April 9, and in doing so it “will closely follow guidance from public health authorities.” The bureau also notes that if need be, it will adapt its follow-up work, and in certain areas it is incidentally already reaching out by phone.

For some, Census work continued unfettered this week. The Hard to Count Census map, considered by many a primary source of count-related data, announced a special self-response update, noting all the previous Census data on the map will remain, but there will now be a new focus on visualizing granular 2010 self-response rates versus the latest response rates from the 2020 count, which developers plan to start displaying as of March 20. 

For more information, Government Technology’s ongoing coverage of the 2020 U.S. Census can be found below: 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.