Census official touts impact of now-live 2020 online response

Zack Schwartz speaks March 11, 2020, at the IT Modernization Summit presented by FedScoop. (Scoop News Group)

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The online portal for the 2020 census went live Thursday, giving Americans the opportunity to self respond to the survey on the internet for the first time.

Rather than waiting for a canvasser to call or show up on their doorstep unannounced, Americans can now head online to fill out the survey. It’s a decision that came with huge challenges in recent years, but one that will have an immense impact on developing a more accurate and complete count of Americans, said Zack Schwartz, deputy division chief of the U.S. Census Bureau‘s Communications Directorate.

“Imagine: We have the challenge of counting everyone once, only once, and in the right place. For us, it’s a huge challenge to think about how we can reach the entire home residence of the U.S.,” Schwartz said Wednesday at FedScoop’s IT Modernization Summit.

Of course, as FedScoop has reported in the past, this took years and years of IT infrastructure modernization to support the heavy load the Census Bureau’s websites and systems will face as millions of Americans potentially go online to take the 2020 survey. Congressional watchdogs have lambasted the bureau in the run-up to the 2020 count.

“We talked a lot about how we can build an IT system, not only our self-response portal, but even our website to withstand the amount of traffic in a very short period of time,” Schwartz said. “Being able to scale to meet the needs of the American public so that your experience, when you go to the internet self-response portal, it’s not slow, it’s not reacting in a way that’s negative and makes you want to get off and say, ‘Look, it’s just another failed government program.'”

Schwartz continued, “We’ve done a lot of testing over the last decade… we modernized through the decade to scale, to have the cloud availability that we need, that our testing can show that everything is going to work, that the experience is going to be good, and that’s something we’re very proud of.”

And on top of that, it introduces other new challenges, like protecting the sensitive information of Americans who take the census online. (Fighting misinformation and disinformation is also a major challenge.) But Schwartz said the bureau believes it has done enough, with help of industry, to keep people’s information secure.

“We feel confident that your data is secure, we feel confident that your experience interacting with the bureau during the 2020 census is going to be positive,” he said. “And some people are going to say, ‘Wow, that worked.'”

And for those concerned that the bureau might share the information it takes from Americans, it legally can’t do that under federal law, Schwartz said.

But if the Census Bureau is successful in taking its count mostly online in 2020 — people can still opt to respond in-person or by phone — it could have a dramatic impact in response rate, cost savings and overall convenience for everyone involved.

“It is incredibly expensive to send someone to your door time and time again to try to get a response. It’s a huge cost savings,” Schwartz said. It could save American taxpayers and the bureau “billions of dollars possibly as opposed to continuing to send people to your door, continuing to print documents and forms that just aren’t needed.”

On top of the savings, it’s a way for the government to interact with citizens in the 21st century as they’ve come to expect in other parts of their lives. “We knew that the American public was ready to respond online, was ready to use the internet, whether it’s in the back of an Uber, whether it’s on the metro in the morning on your cellphone, or whether it’s on your desktop PC on even on your lunch break, we needed that in order to get a high self-response rate,” Schwartz said. “We knew we needed a modern way for people to interact with the government.”

And while the 2020 count isn’t even yet in full swing, the Census Bureau is already looking ahead to 2030.

“There are teams every day who are focused on the 2030 count and technology is a key piece,” Schwartz said. “We’re going to be testing year after year from now until 2030 on new technologies, on new ways to do the operation, on new ways of calculating data, on new ways of securing data — all aspects that you can imagine.”

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2020 census, Census Bureau, Cloud, IT Modernization, IT Modernization Summit 2020, privacy
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