This GIS Technology Will Help Census Bureau's 2020 Population Survey

This GIS Technology Will Help Census Bureau's 2020 Population Survey

New mapping tool predicts where outreach is needed to boost survey self-response rates.

By the time we get to the 2020 U.S. Census, estimates say there will be about 330 million Americans living in more than 140 million housing units. As the country’s population grows, how can the Census Bureau encourage as many citizens as possible to respond to its surveys?

This was the problem the agency has been trying to solve, according to Deirdre Dalpiaz Bishop, chief of the Census Geography Division.

“The most costly part of conducting a census is when we have to go out and conduct nonresponse follow-up,” she told GovernmentCIO Media at the 2018 Esri Federal GIS Conference on March 20. This follow-up involves physically going door to door around the country to the people who didn’t respond.

By 2020, Census hopes to reduce nonresponse follow-up, increase self-response and better communicate with community leaders with the Response Outreach Area Mapper, or ROAM.

What is ROAM?

An online interactive public map powered by Esri, a provider of GIS mapping software and platforms, ROAM is populated with statistical data from the Census Planning Database. It provides tract-level data on low response scores and information about people and households from the American Community Survey, like poverty status, education level, race and language ability. The data is updated annually and the most recent 2012-2016 numbers will be plugged into the application in June, providing the most up-to-date low response score calculations and predictions.

The Planning Database has been publicly available for several years, but was a large and difficult file to download, use and process.

“It was sort of a specialized file that required a third party application to be able to manipulate it, and look through it,” said Suzanne McArdle, Census computer mapping specialist, who also was at the Esri event.

So, when McArdle and the geography division realized the maps — being the most important part of the puzzle — and the spatial aspect weren't included in that Planning Database, it was time to integrate. Now, anybody with a web browser can interact and see all the data.

“It’s just right out-of-the-box usable,” McArdle said.

Ultimately, ROAM makes it easier to identify areas with typically low response rates for censuses and surveys. It helps the agency plan for the 2020 Census and communicate with tribal, state and local governments and community leaders about where those hardest-to-count populations will be. In turn, community leaders and officials can use that information to educate those populations about why it is important to self-respond.

How Did Census Integrate?

Integrating the platform wasn’t much of a challenge. Census already used Esri tools at the enterprise level, and ROAM is one of the first applications the bureau built using Portal for ArcGIS, an Esri platform for sharing and securing geospatial content.

“That’s actually something that was stood up specifically to help support our work here, because it was already accessible to us,” McArdle said.

It didn’t require a workforce trained in code development, either. Once the geography division figured out what it needed the tool to be and look like, and the cartographic design of the tool, it was easy to put together.

And when it came to staff adoption, Bishop said senior leaders at the bureau were “hungry for this type of application.” They’ve been looking at this data for at least the past 20 years, but 20 years ago, it required geographic specialists to create the maps and print them out for Census leaders and communicators, who would take the printed maps to community leaders.

Now, anyone carrying a device with a web browser can pull up the map and show people where the hardest-to-count populations will live.

The application was also shared with Census’ National Advisory Committee in 2017. The committee consists of people across the country who have been asked to serve the federal government and advise Census about how it’s progressing on its plans for the 2020 Census.

“[The committee] could see the value of a tool like this, and that really helped us get this tool out even faster,” Bishop said.

How is ROAM Used Internally?

The tool was an idea in April 2016 and was released to the public in February. During that time, there were different phases of integrating it into what the geographic and mapping teams were doing.

Leadership at all different levels can easily use the tool to help plan for the 2020 Census. For example, for areas with lower response rates, Census recruitment will know whom to hire to go knocking on doors in certain communities based on the area’s demographics or predominant languages spoken.

The maps project where Census will have the greatest need for hiring and recruiting people, what the unemployment rates are for the future and how it can attract the right people. The tool can help predict where to target outreach teams when working with communication teams and contractors, and how to design a message for TV, radio or internet depending on the population the bureau is trying to reach.

“All of these statistics in this data set are going to help us to make informed decisions,” Bishop said.

What About External Users?

Census has partnership specialists who go out to local communities and meet faith-based and community leaders to show them the tool and how it can be used. The map will even inform local officials of where to allocate resources and teams to encourage self-response.

Census also publicly released ROAM Representational State Transfer services, which allows all of the map data in the application to be available at a public REST endpoint. This means other developers can create their own web mapping applications with ROAM data as a base.

So, as partnership specialists make connections in local communities, municipal GIS shops can build their own applications using Census data and their own local data on top of it. Census doesn’t store youth center location or faith-based organization data on its map, but local communities with access to that information can add that layer.

“If it will help state and local officials to have their own GIS web mapping applications that look similar to ours, but add value, add the local information, we thought that that would be really helpful,” McArdle said.

This feature was initially a recommendation from the National Advisory Committee.

“We keep a running list of enhancements, and so we’re taking note of anybody who comments on how this tool could be better because if we can implement it, we would like to be able to do that,” McArdle said.