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Using GIS Technology to Modernize the US Census
Most people know that the census helps gather accurate data about population distributions as well as demographics and other details. What some people don’t know, however, is how that data is used at the federal level.
Population censuses are one of the primary sources of data for implementing policies and funding distribution to states. Each decade, the US Census Bureau evaluates its methods. In order to better understand how location impacts organizations' workflows and financial health, governments recognize the need of using digital technology and geographical information systems (GIS) data. Thus, The US Census Bureau has set a goal to modernize its entire census process by applying technology--including GIS--to gain efficiencies, increase accuracy, and improve collaboration all while reducing costs to better serve its mission.
Census Impacts on Funding
Census counts greatly influence funding amounts that are committed to each state to ensure all populations are treated fairly in the distribution of public goods and services. The George Washington University Program “Counting for Dollars” estimated that North Dakota obtained $1,910 in federal funds per person in the fiscal year 2015 for just sixteen of the largest federal programs. These 16 are programs in which the census count is used to a higher extent in the formula for distribution among the states.
According to census officials, missing one resident on the census results in a loss of approximately $19,100 in various forms of federal funding over 10 years ($1,910 per person each year); a missed household is approximately $44,312. If just 0.1% of North Dakota’s population was missed, that would mean $15 million in funds that can never be accessed.
Subsequent reports identified a total of 300 other federal programs in which the census count is used in some manner to determine the distribution of funds. However, each of these programs differs in how the population count influences the outcome. Nevertheless, the $1,910 figure that is referred to earlier is likely highly conservative without factoring in inflation since 2015 (which is approximately $2,070 in 2020). In addition, the census determines the number of representatives at both the state and federal levels.
No census is perfect. Individuals will always be missed. In a 2012 report, the Census Bureau estimated that 3.9 percent or roughly 26,200 residents of the state’s population were “omitted” from the 2010 decennial census counted.
Courtesy: North Dakota Department of Commerce
How The Census Works
The decennial census is first a count of housing units and then a count of the individuals in each residence. Ensuring that the Census Bureau has a full and complete list of all housing is paramount to ensuring every household and individual is counted in the decennial census.
The process is complicated because the Census Bureau tightly restricts access to the database of residential addresses, called the Master Address List, under US Title 13 USC. Once a decade, the Census Bureau opens the Master Address List for select representatives of each state to compare with the state’s list of addresses under a program called “Count Review.” The intent of this program is to let the states identify gaps in the Census Bureau’s housing count ahead of the upcoming decennial census. Most states have some sort of list of residences to use in their comparison. Often, these are developed from voter registrations, a process North Dakota does not have. As a result, North Dakota had no master residential address list to compare to the Census Bureau’s Master Address List.
North Dakota has a highly accurate list of addresses that was being updated for the Next Generation 911 Program (NEXTGEN 911). However, this list does not identify the location by type. This list includes residences, businesses, schools, and churches all mixed together without a clean way to show only residential locations.
To submit data from the NEXTGEN 911 address list would have left the North Dakota Department of Commerce with so many mismatches that they would never be able to accomplish their goal of identifying where the Census Bureau is missing residential addresses.
To improve the likelihood that accurate data will be gathered during the 2020 census, the North Dakota Department of Commerce retained HEI to assist with certain preparations. Counties and cities were asked to provide updated address data information prior to the census fieldwork; however, not all counties and cities had the resources to perform these updates. HEI was asked to provide a statewide address database to supplement what the cities and counties had submitted.
The HEI team compared parcel information against NEXGEN 911 addressing data to provide updated residential addresses. Fifty of the state's fifty-three counties agreed to participate. This new data would provide statistical building blocks.
HEI used the 911 address database in conjunction with the parcel data to isolate residential address information. Apartments and multi-family dwellings needed to be further developed into full unit addresses. The team was able to further validate the information with the DMV registration database as well as local and countywide data sets.
As a result of HEI’s strong efforts in identifying structures by type, the state of North Dakota received substantial increases in federal funding according to Kevin Iverson, Department of Commerce.
"The feedback we got from the Census Bureau was that we were probably able to add 205 residential and 55 group quarters locations to the Census Bureau’s list," said Kevin. "This seemed like a tremendous victory. These are locations that otherwise may not have been counted."
Courtesy: North Dakota Department of Commerce
"Based on the average number of individuals that we would expect to find in residential housing and group quarters housing, we added addresses that impacted a total of about 1,851 individuals to the final county. Assuming all of these individuals were counted, the impact may have been as high as $38,300,000 for the state over the coming decade.
Again, I believe that given only the 16 largest federal programs are included in this calculation, this figure is likely conservative," said Kevin.
Kevin also shared his thoughts about his experience working with HEI's team:
"The staff was highly professional. I was kept up to date on the progress and problems they were having obtaining the parcel data. Some counties were more reluctant to share their parcel data than others. We worked together to explain how the data would be used and that it would not be misused. All in all, it was a good working relationship. I believe the return on investment for the state was well worthwhile."