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Census Bureau Testing Internet, Smartphone Technology for 2020 Count

Not much has changed in a while, but that may be about to change. (US Census Bureau)

Not much has changed in a while, but that may be about to change. (US Census Bureau)

Uncle Sam may not be showing up at your door with a clipboard in hand come the next census, as the US government is preparing to test 21st-century tools allowing it to accurately count the nation’s population using Internet and smartphone technology.

The Associated Press reports Americans may soon be filling out their census forms online instead via US Mail, as has been done for decades. Census-takers may soon be using smartphones to complete their counts, instead of filling out paperwork like in centuries past.

In a bid to apply modern technology to a practice as old as America itself, census workers will be conducting a test in which they will ask residents of Savannah, Georgia and Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona to submit information via the Internet rather than by mail. In the follow-up home visits to those who do not reply online, census-takers will input data into their Android smartphones for real-time collection and analysis.

In 2013, US Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson issued a statement titled “Ensuring an Accurate and Affordable 2020 Census” in which he promised to fundamentally change the paper-based census system that has been in place since the 19th century.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the cost of counting each US household during the 2010 census was $98, up from $16 in 1970, or a 600 percent increase. Over the same period, the mail response rate, considered a key indicator of cost-effectiveness, fell from 78 percent to 63 percent. This, despite considerable government expenditure on census outreach before and during the 2010 count.

“In many ways, the Bureau has had to invest substantially more resources each decade just to try and match the results of prior enumerations,” the GAO said in a report.

Pew Research Center believes part of the decline in public responsiveness to census-takers is attributable to “growing public reluctance to answer surveys.” But that reluctance may be counterproductive. There’s much at stake in getting the count right — census data is used to allot congressional seats and to determine how much the government will spend on infrastructure, programs and services in a given area.

The real-time capability of census-takers utilizing smartphones will allow managers to deploy workers on the ground more efficiently.

“You now can electronically control the flow of information all the way, from when you get people to self-respond, hopefully by the Internet, to when you give it to the interviewers to when you get it back from the interviewers,” said Thompson.

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