US Census online by 2020? Not so fast


A view of a densely populated, multi-ethnic swath of Los Angeles.

Credit: Reuters

IT, Cloud computing questions could derail project

The US Census Bureau has designs on bringing the 2020 census online but while that might sound like a good idea, there are many challenges that need to be addressed.

That’s according to the Government Accountability Office which in a report out today said that to successfully offer the Internet as public response option the Census Bureau needs to, among other things, design and develop an Internet response application, develop and acquire the IT infrastructure to support the large volume of data processing and storage.

The idea is a good one. The GAO stated that the Census Bureau has determined an Internet response option offers several benefits for the 2020 census, including the added convenience for households in an increasingly Internet-enabled population to respond to the survey; better quality data, which could reduce the amount of follow-up that is needed for surveys with incomplete or inconsistent data; and less printing, postage, and processing of paper questionnaires.

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Bureau officials have also stated that the Internet response option would provide opportunities to administer the survey in multiple languages more easily than with paper questionnaires.

The GAO stated that the Census Bureau’s efforts to deliver an Internet response option for the 2020 census include several key components:

Internet response application: Design and develop an online survey instrument that allows respondents to enter and submit their information to the Bureau. To enhance Internet response participation, the Bureau is researching an option for respondents to submit their information without having the traditional Bureau-issued ID number (referred to as “non-ID processing). To achieve this, the Bureau will need to develop the capability to validate respondent-provided addresses either automatically against its master address file in real-time or in batches offline.

IT infrastructure: Develop and acquire the IT infrastructure (e.g., servers, hardware, and network capacity) needed to support the data processing, storage, and transactions from Internet responses. The Bureau has stated that it plans to use cloud computing solutions, which is a means for establishing on-demand access to shared and scalable pools of computing resources, to help support the large volume of data processing, storage, and transactions needed for Internet responses.

Communication and outreach: Planning for how the Bureau can make use of partnership efforts, advertising, and outreach methods like social media to maximize the use of an Internet response option and motivate households to self-respond via Internet.

But while efforts to deliver an Internet response option are under way the Bureau faces several scheduling, task, and capability challenges including, the GAO says:

  • Key questions related to estimating the Internet self- response rate and determining the IT needed to support it may not be answered in time for the preliminary design decision, scheduled for September 2015 when testing of such applications is set to begin. Specifically, the Bureau has not developed project plans and research methodologies for answering these questions. In November 2014, officials stated that they had recently begun working on establishing methodologies for answering these questions. However, Bureau officials do not know when the methodologies will be established or when project plans will be updated or created to reflect this new work. Until such plans and methodologies are established, concerns will persist as to whether these two critical questions will be answered in time to inform the design decision in September 2015.
  • High-level time frames for making decisions related to implementing cloud computing (i.e., a means for enabling on-demand access to shared and scalable pools of computing resources), such as selecting, testing, and implementing a cloud environment that meets the Bureau’s scalability, budget, security, and privacy needs, have not been established. While Bureau officials estimated that such time frames will be established around June 2015, until they are established the Bureau will lack assurance that it has enough time to successfully implement a cloud environment prior to system testing, which is to begin in 2018, the GAO stated.

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