Statistical agencies looking to C-suite, new digital tools to address biggest challenges

Counting people or tallying trees, when it comes to federal surveys, the biggest hurdles are management and technology.

Speaking at the Feb. 13 Esri FedGIS Conference in Washington, D.C., officials with the Census Bureau and Forest Service said when it comes to fulfilling their missions, it’s about more than just getting good data.

Greg Reams, national program manager for the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis, said what his office has learned is to pay regular visits to its CIO and contracting officers if it needs to get something done.

Measuring soil and vegetation, counting privately owned forests, and watching for insects and disease, all fall under the Forest Service’s purview.

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“All the C’s and all the O’s, the CIOs, the CFOs, all those kind of things, that’s actually the hardest thing to do,” Reams said, when asked about the biggest challenges for his line of work. “It has to do with the administrative processes within agencies. So to get the permissions, it’s always a good idea to have a good idea of what you’re trying to do the next two years, and work on those permissions with all the people that need to sign off on it.”

For the Census Department, technology and congressional support are the challenges it’s facing today.

You only get one shot at a census, said Tom Fitzwater, who works in the Census Bureau’s population division as a geographer, with a focus on international populations.

“There’s a high risk of failure if you’re adopting new technology, and especially going back to the lower-middle income national statistical office, this is going to be for the 2020 round of censuses the first time that many of these statistical offices have tried to conduct a completely digital census, or a census that has a very light paper trail. There are all of these risks that are associated with new technologies that introduce a lot of challenges for statistical offices.”

At nearly $13 billion, the 2010 Census was the most expensive count in U.S. history, and it cost the bureau $100 per household. The bureau requested $1.6 billion for fiscal 2017, and $778.3 million for the 2020 census.

To help cut costs on the upcoming census, the bureau is turning to the internet, rather than paper.

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Unlike the 2010 census, which sent out enumerators — the people who will be out in the field actually conducting the survey — with paper maps, the coming 2020 census, will use smartphones and tablets, said Dierdre Bishop, chief of the bureau’s geography division.

Address listers and enumerators will be able to see case assignments on the screens, and have access not only to bureau maps, but “imagery to help them get to where they’re going.”

Bishop said Census expects about 143 million housing units in the U.S. by the time of the 2020 count.

Bishop said in 2010, the bureau hired more than 150,000 address listers to go around every block, validating the bureau’s list of households.

“It was one of the most laborious and expensive operations of the 2010 census,” Bishop said.

“Our goal is to count everyone once, only once, and in the right place,” Bishop said. “And in order to do that, we have to make sure that we have a very strong geographic foundation, we have to have a good address list.”

The way the Census Bureau is balancing a good address list and its budget is by working with local and state agencies to get their address information, along with the Postal Service, and third parties for commercial data, Bishop said.

Census is also doing in-office canvassing using interactive review and a Block Assessment, Research and Classification Application, which was developed in-house.

“This will allow us to focus field work, our most expensive efforts, in only the areas where it’s absolutely necessary, where we can’t find information through technology,” Bishop said.

The application works by comparing satellite imagery from 2009, with “very recent,” current imagery, Bishop said. An analyst looks at a particular block and can label it stable, or unchanged. If they do see a change, they can drop a pin, which triggers a review by a more experienced analyst using additional resources to look at what has changed between the two images.

There is still 100 percent review of every census block, Bishop said. The “interactive review” phase for this address canvassing started in October 2015, Bishop said, with a goal of completing half of all blocks in the nation by the end of fiscal 2016. Not only did Census meet that goal, it has already completed an additional 30 percent of block reviews for 2017.

Of the blocks reviewed, about 72 percent have no change from 2009, while about 17 percent are in review. Around 11 percent of blocks are on hold for better imagery, Bishop said. And the online reviews online take 62 seconds, Bishop said, compared to the 2.5 hours for in-person reviews of the previous census.

Bishop also pointed out that a decennial census is the largest peacetime federal mobilization.

“As we look to the 2020 Census, because this is such a monumental task, I think right now one of our biggest challenges is getting congressional support and ensuring we have good funding to support the census,” Bishop said. “Then getting the right people in the door, to make sure that we get the job done on schedule.”

Getting that support might not be easy. In late 2016, members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform expressed their concern for the bureau meeting its deadlines, protecting citizens’ personally identifiable information, and delivering on new technology.