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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET



The Future of the Census

March 16, 2010 - 3:30 PM | by: Ellen Uchimiya

The design of the 2010 Census was essentially set by the time Robert Groves was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Census Director in July. Groves says he made some changes around the edges, but now sees his job as watching the process unfold, to “stay calm when the crisis hits and make sure we make wise decisions.” And then it’ll be time to plan for the 2020 Census.

As the U.S. Postal Service contemplates reduced service and we continue our march toward a paperless society, it’s hard to imagine the Census depending as heavily on direct mail to collect its data. But adapting constantly changing technology to the counting of every person in a country that already exceeds 300 million is admittedly challenging. Groves says, “It’s easy to say, commit to the internet as one of the modes of the 2020 Census. The harder thing to imagine is what the internet of 2020 will look like, and none of us can imagine what that very well.”

Nonetheless, Groves hopes that the successful integration of the internet into census-taking will help control costs. The $14.7 billion price tag for this year’s Census is, in 2010 dollars, about $6.5 billion more than the cost of the 2000 census, and on average, it’s effectively doubled in price every ten years since 1970–when it cost $1 billion–according to the Census Bureau. But he believes that paper mail will still play a central role even a decade from now–the former University of Michigan sociology professor suggested, “We must adapt to the diversity of the society. The internet will work for some people, but it won’t work for every person. A growing consensus among people who do censuses and large surveys around the world is that we will do censuses with a lot of different methods. We will use mail questionaires for some–because it’s really cheap. This is a very cost-efficient method. But it doesn’t work for everyone. We’ll use internet for others. We may use face-to-face interviewing for some because that is the most cost efficient way for small populations. So the future is a more complicated mix of methods, but one that fits the more diverse society we’ve become.”

We appear to be quite a ways from telepathically messaging the answers to the Census’ ten questions to some mega-billion-terabyte server residing in the thumbnail of a clerk at the Census Bureau, but the decade is young. We’ll see.



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