Census: Internet will be an option in 2020 count

Wednesday - 12/22/2010, 9:31am EST

Dr. Robert Groves, director. U.S. Census Bureau

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The population count of the U.S. is 308.7 million people. The closely watched 2010 census shows the country's population growth dropping to the lowest level in seven decades. The steady migration to the South and West will be a boon to Republicans as they pick up new House seats.

But after having time to analyze part of the data and part of the process, Dr. Robert Groves told Federal News Radio that the next time around, there will be an internet component to the decennial event.

"We will have an Internet option for 2020," Groves said.

What won't change however is the basics. The Census Bureau is required by the Constitution to survey the population every 10 years, and is required by the Supreme Court to actually account for every resident.

"We do indeed count everyone, and that's one of the reasons it's such a costly enterprise," Groves said. "This was an expensive census, but it was one that we did with the goal in mind that everyone is counted once and only once and in the right place."

While sampling is used for most statistical measures of the country as whole, Groves said that's not possible with the census.

"We have to separate what is lawful under the current legal constraints that the Census bureau operates under versus what is statistically the best way to do things," Groves said.

Though expensive, this year's census came in nearly $2 billion under budget, and Groves is looking to make the next one even more cost efficient, especially considering the economic climate.

"We're looking toward 2020 actually with a small, but very energetic group," Groves said. The idea is to find a way to raise response rates but not costs, for which incorporating the Internet is not the only, or best, solution.

"{T}hat will help some, but it won't be a panacea for getting return rates way up," Groves said, and non-responses are what drive the cost up because of the manpower that is hired to go interview residents to get a more complete census.

"One way of doing that is by taking of the infrastructure that exists at the Census bureau for other measuring devices," Groves said. "We're trying to be smarter on software development by integrating our software development into other activities."

Incorporating the Internet will be helpful however, not just in reducing paper production and costs but with the back-end costs of data processing; with on-line responses that data can be processed immediately, and according the Groves, the quality of the responses are generally better.

"We're going to need multiple methods for 2020 that fit the lifestyles of the diverse population that we're becoming increasingly," Groves said.

But before the Census can start focusing on 2020, there is still work to be done on the 2010 count. Starting in a few months, the Census will release state-by-state and hyperlocalized data.