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Could the 2020 Census Help Bridge the Digital Divide?

As government agencies and nonprofit groups help prepare communities for the nation’s first high-tech Census, digital inclusion advocates see a chance to bridge digital divides that span well past next year’s count.

The 2020 U.S. Census will be the nation’s first high-tech count, with residents encouraged to primarily respond online.

While this has the potential to foster a more efficient Census, advocates and officials say many hard-to-count populations are not comfortable using computers. Or lack access to high-speed Internet at home. Or have cybersecurity concerns. Or don’t know how to find and fill out the Census online.

There is, simply put, a long list of obstacles related to the United States’ widening digital divide, with digital divide meaning that as our society has advanced — coming to rely on the Internet for everything from education to finding health care to applying for housing or jobs — some residents have been left behind. Part of the challenge for April’s 2020 count is that Census volunteers and other advocates must help large groups of the population overcome the digital divide.

They must essentially perform digital equity work in the name of the Census. It’s a heavy lift, to be sure, but many say there is a silver lining — digital equity work for the Census can be executed in a way that has a lasting impact on underserved communities for years to come. Basically, initiatives such as technology training sessions for the Census can teach seniors, recent immigrants and others valuable skills to help them thrive in other ways in our increasingly digital world.

In fact, as prep ramps up for the 2020 Census, there are already several examples of this nationwide.


Georgia as a state faces some stark realities, both in terms of reaching hard to count populations for the Census and in bridging the digital divide.

Georgia is made up of 159 counties, 89 of which are designated as hard to count by Census officials and advocates. At the same time, 109 of those counties have at least 25 percent of their households lacking access to high-speed Internet at home, said Jeanine Abrams McLean, one of the leaders of Fair Count, a group working to get a fair and accurate count within Georgia. McLean cited information from the Hard to Count map, which many identify as the best data resource for the 2020 Census.

McLean said there are even some counties in Georgia that yielded an accurate count in 2010 — which officials designate as 85 percent counted or higher — but could prove more difficult this time due to the digital divide. 

This has all inspired the work in Georgia to take dead aim at digital inclusion.

“One of the things we immediately noticed was the digital divide and the lack of a digital infrastructure in Georgia,” McLean said. “We know there will be phone and paper options, but as part of our outreach options, we decided that if people don’t have the Internet, we need to bring the Internet to them.”

To do this, Fair Count has created a digital equity initiative that partners with trusted entities for residents of rural Georgia — faith-based organizations. As part of a pilot project primarily with churches, Census advocates in Georgia are setting up 25 digital inclusion installations, complete with high-speed Internet access, tablets and other technology. 

And in areas where the churches are not predominant gathering places, the group is looking to bring the installations to community centers, popular restaurants, or Boys and Girls Clubs. The goal is to eventually create 60 installations across the state. While the Census is the onus for creating these installations, McLean said they will be giving the faith-based community centers high-speed Internet and the tech to access it through the end of the year, with the tech remaining at the churches beyond that.

“A lot of times in hard-to-reach communities, the processes tend to be extractive,” McLean said. “They go into these communities but don’t leave any resources. We didn’t want to be extractive, we wanted to pay for lasting resources for these folks.”

The plans for these installations are ongoing, with Fair Count exploring the feasibility of programming such as digital skills training and Census employment workshops. Ultimately, McLean said, the hope is that using computers to be seen and counted as part of the Census, will prove to be a lasting springboard to positive change.

“We’re using the Census as a catalyst for continued civic engagement in these communities,” she said, “because when we talk about hard-to-count communities, we’re talking about disenfranchised communities, marginalized communities, communities that aren’t typically invited into this space when we have these conversations.”

Philadelphia and Detroit

Georgia is far from alone in thinking long-term with its Census-related digital equity efforts.

In fact, one of the largest digital equity programs in the local government space has committed much work this year to getting an accurate count. In May, the Philadelphia Digital Literacy Alliance — a coalition of public-private stakeholders essentially convened by the city — announced that an upcoming round of grant-making would go entirely toward digital inclusion work that also supported the Census. The grants, which total roughly $200,000, are being given out in sizes that range from $10,000 on the low end for singular groups to $40,000 for collaborative efforts.

When announcing these efforts, officials pointed out the vast overlap between populations that are hard to count in the Census with populations that don’t have access to technology or the skills to use it in meaningful ways. Stephanie Reid, who is leading the city’s Census work as the executive director of Philly Counts 2020, also said the hope was to fund projects that would have a lasting impact on digital equity in the city, such as digital skills training that could help residents fill out the Census and later apply for jobs.

“It would be a real shame to have all these resources for a year and a half, but when the Census is over, everything goes away," Reid told Government Technology in May.

Similar digital skills training is underway in Detroit, with that city working to refine its data about communities and also train local Census workers in how to best use related technologies. Both cities — as well as others ranging from Houston to San Jose, Calif. — are also engaged in massive campaigns to stress the importance of the count, encouraging residents to fill it out on their own or to seek out help at trusted government locations such as the public library, which has become somewhat of a ground zero for the work being done at the intersection of the Census and digital inclusion.

Public Libraries

For decades, public libraries have essentially been the frontline in the battle to ensure that all segments of society are included in digital advances.

Libraries were the first places that some people used computers or the Internet, and they have long offered digital skills training, whether in the form of formal classes or simply with a reference librarian who took a few moments to show someone how to setup an email account. With this context, it comes as no surprise that library systems across the country are working to help populations complete this year’s Census digitally.

Heather Lowe is the adult services administrator for the Dallas Public Library system, which has 28 locations spread throughout that sprawling Texas city. Lowe is also a member of the Dallas area’s complete count committee, which is the local group working to support the federal Census efforts. Lowe is also well aware that Dallas ranks as one of the least connected major cities in the country, with an estimated 40 percent of residents there not having a fixed Internet connection at home.

With this in mind, Lowe said all of the locations in the Dallas Public Library system will have computers set aside specifically for the Census, so that residents will not have to wait with the rest of the public to fill out the count. There are also plans to have staff members trained specifically in how to assist. This, however, is an area that Lowe said the library is already well-positioned to assist with.

“If you asked any of the public service staff at the library what they do all day, they would say they help people set up email, create resumes, and sometimes figure out how a mouse works,” Lowe said. “Our staff is really patient with people who don’t know how technology works.”

Lowe expects many members of the community to look to the libraries as the ideal place to complete the Census, given that the library is seen as a friendly and welcoming place to many, one that is associated with government but perhaps not as overtly as a place like city hall. To encourage people to think of the library as a Census destination — as well as to understand the importance of the Census — the Dallas Public Library is integrating messaging into its community outreach efforts, which take place at schools, neighborhood events such as block parties and community centers.

A big push in the Dallas area will also be reaching the segments of the population who are not native English speakers. They already have English language learning at 26 of their 28 locations, and the library will work to integrate tech and Census training discussion there as well.

“Anywhere we go,” Lowe said, “we’ll be spreading the message about the Census.”

Dallas is far from the only library system approaching the Census and the related digital inclusion issues this way. 

As far back as last year, members of the Western New York Library Resources Council were attending digital inclusion summits, where the importance of the work in relation to the Census was stressed, said Sheryl Knab, who is the executive director of that council.

“The major need we saw is that we need to provide librarians training on how to provide services to patrons who come into the library asking questions about the Census and not knowing how to use a computer,” Knab said.

In the service of this, the council has already hosted panel discussions to familiarize its staffers with the Census. It has also worked to create or help spread a number of online resources, including a statewide LibGuide for staffers as well as its own 2020 Census resources hub for member libraries.

Knab emphasized the vast and permanent digital inclusion opportunities inherent to this situation, noting that if a patron comes in wanting to complete the Census but having never before used a computer, they can inadvertently be exposed to the Internet, how to use a mouse and how to submit a form — all of which are experiences that are helpful in applying for jobs online. Simply put, she said, “that might open doors for them to come back and work with staff on other things.”

There is also a chance for libraries to forge deeper collaborative relationships with other local stakeholders, relationships that can also help with digital inclusion, said Heidi Ziemer, the outreach and digital services coordinator for the Western New York Library Resources Council. The council, for example, has found itself working closely with college campuses to help get the word out. 

Ziemer described the 2020 Census “as a potential catalyst for building some partnerships between libraries, community-based organizations, government and the private sector” that can really help the region take on digital inclusion challenges. 

In the end, it is perhaps worth also noting that this is not the first time the constitutionally mandated dillenial Census has had the potential to vastly accelerate deep technological change in this country. 

In fact, scholars in the space point out that the acceleration of the mighty U.S. computing industry can be traced back to the Census. Essentially, a need to count the Census faster and more efficiently planted deep roots in technologies that would later lead to a boom in computational invention and innovation, with a Census stakeholder founding a company in the early 1900s that would one day become IBM. 

So, is a lasting leap in digital inclusion in the service of a more efficient and accurate Census count a possibility? Well, it’s certainly not lacking in effort or historical precedent. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.