The 2020 Census is less than a year away and local governments are mobilizing Complete Count Committees to encourage people to participate. With over 330 million people living in more than 140 million housing units, a complete Census count is a momentous and important task. In order to achieve an accurate count, local governments are incorporating data and technology tools to maximize accuracy and outreach.

These past few months, beamdata has been serving on the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County Complete Count Committee as partners on the Data Subcommittee. Beamdata is an organization that operates at the intersection of data and community-level social issues, so the opportunity to work with local government has been an invaluable learning experience for our team. We’ve spent time learning, brainstorming and relaying how data and technology can play a critical role in achieving a complete 2020 Census count

We have to count every single person, only once, and the stakes are high. Comprehensive Census data is essential to federal, state and local government agencies for planning related to public policy, assessments, and day-to-day governance. The Census is the only well-maintained and consistent documentation of historical changes in an area. Specifically, disaggregated Census data at different geographic levels such as the county, municipal, tract, and block group are critical to capture conditions in a neighborhood. An inclusive Census is critical to accurately convey demographic diversity within a county or city and ensure fair allocation of social service programs and political representation.

Compared to the 2010 Census, the Census in April 2020 faces new threats that can negatively impact political representation and federal funding in our region. The proposed inclusion of a citizenship question, growing distrust of government, and the use of an online digital response system could result in an undercount of already marginalized communities. Additionally, a major challenge is the 2020 Census is significantly underfunded in comparison to the 2010 Census.

In order to drive a complete count, local government practitioners across the nation are testing new ideas and encouraging government-led innovation. There are many possible ways to describe the benefits of local governments leading a data-driven 2020 Census. There are two specific lessons beamdata has learned while supporting the City/County to achieve a data-driven 2020 Census complete count.

Firstly, rather than relying on standard methods of problem-solving, local government is facilitating a culture of experimentation. In order to support a complete count, local governments are using data to support strategic outreach planning to reflect community needs. For example, visualizing areas using mail nonresponse rate data has made it easier to pinpoint neighborhoods that are less likely to participate in the Census. Beamdata developed an interactive mapping tool based on the “low response score” (LRS), a measure developed by the US Census Bureau. The LRS is a Census block group or Census tract mail nonresponse rate, which can help visualize communities that are at risk of being undercounted in the Census. Specifically, mapping LRS across Allegheny County can help identify areas that are likely to need additional targeted outreach and Census follow-up. This makes it possible for local government to adopt agile practices and quickly respond to on-the-ground Census challenges.

Secondly, the 2020 Census is an opportunity to introduce data-driven solutions that will have practical application beyond Census Day on April 1st, 2020. The long-term success of data innovation must be anchored in practical use cases to encourage adoption of data tools. For example, visualizations are an effective tool to understand socioeconomic and demographic conditions in a particular geographic area. Specifically, neighborhood-level indicators are useful to identify hard-to-count populations and efficiently allocate outreach resources. Beamdata’s interactive LRS tool provides a general understanding of how hard it will be to count a specific geographic area but also why these geographic areas are hard to reach. Beyond the 2020 Census, assessing community indicators in an interactive format can facilitate operational process improvements, while supporting innovation in smaller boroughs with limited resources.

The 2020 Census presents a unique opportunity for local government to take advantage of the large volumes of available data and lead co-creation of innovative data tools. As partners on the City/County Data Subcommittee, we are actively learning how to be effective Census partners and navigate the unique challenges of government-led innovation. Although the pace of change may be slower than a traditional startup, the long-term impact of successfully adapting and deploying Census data tools are far greater. Using data and technology to connect the dots to hard-to-count populations and inform outreach priorities brings us closer to fair allocation of federally funded social programs and political representation. The subsequent lessons in collaborative experimentation and efficiency of government processes are lessons that will outlive Census Day.

This blog post is only reflective of the opinions and experiences of beamdata.

Bhavini Patel
CEO/Co-founder beamdata
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