Research Suggests a Better, Cheaper Way to Conduct U.S. Census

For over 200 years, U.S. federal government relied on government employees to visit each residence in the U.S. in order to gather the census at 10-year-intervols. Starting in 1960, the U.S. Census Bureau came to rely primarily on mailing surveys to households to gather information, though government employees still pay a visit to those that are unable or unwilling to return their surveys.

And while technology has changed the way we do almost everything since 1960, the method for taking the U.S. Census remains virtually unchanged.

No Census Survey Necessary?

With this in mind, a group of researchers from SDSU and the University of Oklahoma has proposed that the census can be gathered using existing data from government and private industry sources such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), financial institutions, the Department of Motor Vehicles and consumer credit bureaus without using mailed surveys.

The research team, consisting of SDSU alumnus James Kelly (’12, Accounting/’18, MSA); SDSU management information systems (MIS) professors, Dr. Murray Jennex and Dr. Kaveh Abhari; the director of SDSU’s Visualization Center, Dr. Eric Frost; and Dr. Alexandra Durcikova, MIS professor from the University of Oklahoma, found it would be possible to collect the data much faster and more accurately than the current systems of mailed paper surveys and face-to-face human interaction.

Kaveh Abhari

Dr. Kaveh Abhari

Targeting Poverty

Additionally, the team also found that using existing data could better determine where people are living in poverty based on their location, number of household members, and more comprehensive financial information than is currently measured by the census. The team noted two roadblocks to implementing data sharing: privacy issues and convincing the agencies involved to share their information.

The Matter of Privacy

The research asserted that the issue of privacy could be addressed by stripping out all personally identifiable information (PII) such as names, social security numbers, email address and other identifiers not required for census analysis. “Stripping out the PII is critical since cyber criminals are savvy enough to bypass even the most sophisticated data security measures,” said Jennex. “Creating a data system that accepts only non-identifying data required by the census – number of people in a household, household income, etc. – will protect privacy since it isn’t in the system anyway.”

Murray Jennex

Dr. Murray Jennex

The Biggest Challenge of All

The more difficult hurdle would be the development of a system that allows agencies and institutions to share their data. “Government agencies tend to keep their information in ‘silos’, even though it would be of great benefit to move it to an open data system,” said Jennex. “For example, where census data might only show a household of two adults with one child each living in the same household, the IRS data could show if the adults are married and co-mingling funds, not married and co-mingling funds, or not married and not co-mingling funds. This data, along with supporting data defining medical expenses, geographical location and property ownership, could then be used to determine if the one or both of the adults and their children are living in poverty.”

“Using data in the manner would help government agencies create anti-poverty programs that are targeted toward people based on their location, household size, income and other factors,” said Jennex. “It could also be used help to track those anti-poverty programs and their effectiveness.”

While the researchers believe that a secured, open-source system to collect census data would be more efficient than using paper surveys and human census takers, they acknowledge that barriers to implementation – particularly in getting government agencies and other organizations to share their data – may be too much to overcome for the time being. This means the 2020 census will be administered just as it has been since Eisenhower was in the White House.