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How One Data Map Is Supporting Census Work Nationwide

The Census 2020 Hard to Count Map, which was created within the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, is being used by public agencies, nonprofit organizations and community groups that help support the count.

With Census experts saying the 2020 national count is getting less support from the federal government than it did last decade, a civic tech project is helping to fill the void across the country. 

That project is the Census 2020 Hard to Count Map, created within the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Graduate Center. And for many who are working toward ensuring an accurate count, it’s the single most-used source of data and information, or so say members of public agencies at the state and local levels, nonprofits, grassroots community groups and other support bodies.

At its simplest level, the Hard to Count Map helps pinpoint parts of the country — be they rural areas or dense neighborhoods in cities — where response rates are often lower than ideal. At the same time, it also allows for overlaying data that can indicate populations that have lower count totals, too, a list that includes students, immigrants, households with children younger than 5 and others.

Steven Romalewski is the director of the CUNY Mapping Service, and during a recent phone conversation with Government Technology, he described the creation of the map, its functionalities and the type of users he has been helping get familiar with it. The origin of the map dates back to the 2010 Census, during which Romalewski and others at the CUNY Mapping Service developed a localized version that was quickly met with demand in the space.

“Very quickly, we realized this is a nationwide effort and there are all sorts of places we don’t have someone sitting at a computer making a map for,” Romalewski said. “So, let’s create a map that can be used by anyone at any time.”

That realization came late in the Census process 10 years ago. This time around, those involved with the project were prepared to make it a national undertaking that anyone in all 50 states could use to get more info within their communities. Work on the map for this Census started in 2017. One of the results of the increased preparation has been a wider user base. 

Romalewski said it’s being used not just by state and local government entities looking to support federal efforts — which, side note, they do because it directly influences their federal funding and political representation, but that’s another story — but also by members of the media, community groups and philanthropic organizations that have done grant-making related to the Census. 

While the primary use of the map for these groups has so far most heavily been tied to allocating advanced resources, it seems likely to become even more helpful as the actual counting gets underway in March and April. This is the first heavily digital Census, meaning a vast number of Americans will be responding online, which gives the Census Bureau a better idea of who is and isn’t being counted, which the Census Bureau is going to in turn make available. The plan is to map that data, so that people trying to help get out the count can see how they’re doing in their communities in close to real time.

Jeanine Abrams McLean is one of the leaders of Fair Count, an organization founded by former Georgia state representative and gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams. Fair Count is working to do what its name suggests — get a fair and accurate count of people in Georgia, with some of its initiatives and partnerships now starting to expand to a national level.

It’s a big job, with 89 of Georgia’s 159 counties being considered hard to count. McLean is a skilled researcher and biologist, whose work and academic histories have made her no stranger to data, and she described the Hard to Count Map as a vital resource. McLean has used it to inform a wide range of her group’s work, creating tiers of hard to count areas and overlaying data in a way that also gives her an idea of which areas face troubles with the digital divide. 

McLean’s work is thorough and complex, but as it pertains to the map, she also praised its developers for being accessible and generous with other data they had. Some areas in Georgia have a single Census office assigned to cover 20 to 30 counties, which is something McLean was able to ascertain through the map and related data, enabling her and her organization to focus their support efforts accordingly.

And McLean and the Georgia effort are far from being alone. In Texas, the state Legislature this year has decided to not allocate any support to the count, leaving nonprofits and local governments responsible for helping to count one of the nation’s most populous states. Cassie Davis, a research analyst with the nonpartisan and nonprofit Center for Public Policy Priorities, is based in Austin, Texas, and has been helping with the efforts there.

Davis praised the Hard to Count developers for being generous with data and for also listening to feedback about the user experience. She said the result has been a platform that she feels confident recommending as the primary data resource to all the cities and groups she works with.

“We need to know where should our resources be going in the sense of tactical assistance and funding,” Davis said. “The hard to count data in the map is key, that’s what’s helping us decide where in the state to focus our efforts.” 

In Florida, officials with the community group The Miami Foundation have been using it to inform their grant-making, said Lindsey Linzer, the senior director of programs and grant administration with that group.

So far, The Miami Foundation has awarded close to $500,000 to nonprofits doing Census outreach in the area. The map found its way into the grant application process.

“As part of their applications we actually sent them to this map and said figure out what hard to count community you’re going to be targeting and what strategies you’re going to use to reach that community,” Linzer said.

Finally, the map is also proving helpful by giving users access to more nuanced information. Peter Ciurczak, who is a research associate with the Boston Foundation, is involved in similar work as the others using the map. He said the map captures regional differences very well, helping him to see that Suffolk County, Mass., where he lives, has a higher number of renters than many other parts of the country, making it a harder area to count.

While the actual count doesn’t start in earnest until the spring, the time to prepare — especially for those allocating resources at the state or local levels — is now, and the Hard to Count Map is proving to be vital to many of those efforts across the country.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.