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Webinar: How to Take a Data-Driven Approach to the Census

With the 2020 U.S. Census approaching, government organizations and community groups aimed at supporting the count have access to an unprecedented level of data. Understanding how to use that is vital.

In the 10 years since the last U.S. Census, the ways that groups in the country use data — be they government agencies or nonprofit organizations — have massively evolved.

Easy access to data, as well as the technological tools to organize it in easy-to-search/explain ways, has reached unprecedented levels. With that in mind, experts in the gov tech space continue to stress that there are vast opportunities offered by taking a data-driven approach to supporting the 2020 Census. This was the crux of a webinar Wednesday afternoon held by Civis Analytics, a consulting company that works across sectors to help clients understand populations.

The first in a five-part series, the webinar focused on using data-driven marketing approaches during the Census to support the work being prepared by community count organizations, local and state government agencies, consultants, advocacy groups, volunteers, marketing firms, and “just generally people who live in the United States,” said Chris Dick, managing director of public sector work for Civis.

Dick, who before joining Civis was a statistician and branch chief for the Census Bureau, started things off by running down the challenges facing the upcoming Census, which include a slowdown in funding over the last five years, inability to find Census workers due to historically low unemployment, and heightened public concern about data security. 

Dick went over the usual talk of why the Census is so important — it determines political representation and also the fate of $675 billion of federal funding annually — before also stressing that these numbers are vital to the data that technologists will have to work with over the next 10 years.

“More than anything, the Census is our gold standard of data,” Dick said. “Decennial Census data is also used to make numerous business decisions and underlies large swaths of academic research.”   

What emerged during the webinar was an idea that the data must be used to get an accurate count, which will in turn assure that our society has accurate data to draw from in any and all work being done in the next decade, be it a research paper about medical challenges or the best location to open a new restaurant.

So, how then can those involved with the count use data-driven marketing approaches to support federal efforts?

For this, Dick turned things over to his colleague at Civis, Jonathan Williams, an applied data science lead. Williams suggested the use of time-tested data science methodology, beginning with determining your problem — in this case getting every last person in your community counted — followed then by understanding the population involved. 

A large part of the work for data scientists involved with the Census will center around this idea of understanding, with questions that include what do we know about people who are unlikely to respond, what messages and modes of communications resonate with them, and are our efforts working to count them in real time?

“There’s not a lot of carrots or sticks we can use to get people to respond. You can’t pay people to complete the Census,” Williams said. “Since we can’t use carrots or sticks, you have to understand what people’s specific concerns are and then address them.”

For this, Williams said much excellent information is available via the Hard to Count 2020 Map, a civic technology project born out of the City University of New York, as well as conducting their own scientific surveys of individual communities where possible. 

Using data science methodology is also important when it comes to crafting marketing and messaging to reach communities. Recently, for example, research found that stressing how safe Census data would be generated a negative response, because people become more wary at the very mention of data security in connection with the Census. 

The next Census webinar from Civis is slated for Oct. 10, and it will build on the ideas presented in the opener, discussing specific tools and tricks that can be used to better understand populations. Future installments include how to study what motivates or scares populations, how to implement effective messaging campaigns, and how to take advantage of the Census Bureau’s data for in-campaign optimization.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.