Complete And Accurate Counts: Planning And Conducting The Decennial Census  | Stats + Stories Episode 32 / by Stats Stories

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John H. Thompson is the 24th Census Bureau Director. The Census Bureauprepares the 2020 Census and over more than 100 other censuses and surveys, which measure America's people, places and economy, and provide the basis for crucial economic indicators such as the unemployment rate.

+ Full Transcript

Rosemary Pennington : On May 9th John Thompson-Director of the United States Census Bureau - announced he's stepping down from his job, effective June 30th. The announcement came after Thompson testified to Congress that the cost of the 2020 Census would reach about 12.5 billion dollars. Thompson was expected to remain with the Census through at least the end of this year.

The episode of Stats and Stories you're about to hear features Thompson talking about the work of the Census Bureau as well as its preparations for the 2020 count. It was recorded about a month before Thompson announced his resignation from the agency.

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Pennington : Every ten years the federal government starts counting households, individuals in order to find out just how many people live in the United States. The next U.S. Census will take place in twenty twenty and the U.S. Census Bureau has spent the last several years preparing for the count. The U.S. Census, what it does, how it works, is the focus of this episode of Stats and stories, where we explore the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. I'm Rosemary Pennington. Stats and Stories is the production of Miami University's department of statistics and media journalism and film as well as the American Statistical Association. Joining me in the studio are regular panelist John Bailer, Chair of Miami Statistics Department and Richard Campbell, Chair of Media, Journalism and Film. Our special guest today is Census Bureau Director John Thompson who's been in that position since 2013. Thank you so much for being here, John.

John Thompson : Delighted to be here.

Pennington : Could you describe the path that led you to the U.S. Census?

Thompson : Certainly. I went to school at Virginia Tech and I graduated with a Master's in mathematics, with a strong emphasis on statistics and I went to the Census Bureau as a mathematical statistician. I worked there for 27 years in various positions, mostly in statistics. My last job there after twenty seven years was the career person, in charge of the 2000 census. Then I retired from the Census Bureau and went to the private sector, and was fortunate enough to work at NORC at the University of Chicago, which is a smaller nonprofit social science research company, and I was fortunate enough there to become president. And then in 2013, I decided that it was time to do public service, and so I came back to the Census Bureau to help them with their programs, including the 2020 census.

John Bailer : What's the difference between a census and a survey?

Thompson : There's a couple things. Most surveys are based on some kind of sample, mostly a probabilistic sample and they don't interview every household in the universe. They interview a sample. But the census is actually a complete enumeration of the entire population. So, in each census that we've done, we have tried our best to count everyone in the United States once, only once and in the right place.

Richard Campbell : What kind of problems do you have? I mean, in a census, where you actually can't do a sample, you have to talk to everybody. So what are some of the obstacles in getting everybody to contribute to the work of the census?

Thompson : Well, you could put the obstacles in sort of two buckets. One bucket would be all the work that you have to do, and the logistics that you have to do to be ready to take a census and for the 2020 census, we're totally changing the way we have taken the census, by introducing a lot of new automation and mobile technology. But the other area that is a challenge is to reach out to the American people and explain to them, why it's important to be counted in the census. And we do this in a number of ways. We have devoted a lot of money and funds towards paid advertising and for what we call our partnership program and that's where we hire a number of individuals that work with local communities and local governments to really get the word out as to why it's important to respond to census, how it will benefit them and also that the information we collect is very private, it's very confidential. We don't reveal our data to anyone so we protect the information that we get.

Bailer : Can you tell us a little bit about some of those logistical issues and describe some of that? I mean, I'm…I imagine when the census is occurring, you're one of the biggest employers in the country at that time, aren't you, when you are doing the census?

Thompson : Right, right. We're going to…this census we will probably hire between three and four hundred thousand people, that is the peak.

Pennington : Wow.

Thompson : And that will be in 2020, primarily in May and June of 2020. So let me explain a little bit about the census. The first thing we have to do is build an accurate address list, and we do this working throughout the decade by getting information from the U.S. Postal Service, which we have a great partnership, by working with local governments to get address information from them and feature information, which are boundaries and roads, so we can update our database. The next important endeavor in the census is actually inviting people to self-respond to the census. So in the past we have done that strictly via a paper questionnaire that we mailed out. For the 2020 census we're going to offer the Internet as a primary option. But also offer both response by a paper questionnaire and also a response by telephone. And then comes the really really challenging operation for each census that has occurred going back to decades, and that is for those individuals that don't self-respond, we have to go out and collect information from every household and in the past few censuses the self-response rate has been a little over sixty percent. And so what that means is that we've had to go for almost forty percent of the households in the United States and collect a response. In the past that's been a paper and pencil operation. For this census we're going to be equipping our census workers with mobile technology that is a smartphone. We're going to be equipping their supervisors with a tablet so that we can use mobile technology to manage the workforce and introduce great efficiencies.

Campbell : Oh very cool. When you get pushback from almost forty percent that doesn't respond, how are the workers sort of trained to deal with people? For instance, to say, well, the government they're just spying on us, we are not giving them any information. I mean there's got to be a certain number of people that have that sort of reaction.

Thompson : Yeah. So we spend a bit of time training, we call them enumerators, on why the census is important and how to explain that to respondents, to potential respondents, to get their information. But like I said, the other thing we do is we also work with our partnership program with local communities to get trusted voices in the local areas to speak on behalf of the Census Bureau and explain to people that when somebody knocks on the door from the Census, it is a good thing to respond to them.

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Pennington : You're listening to Stats and Stories, where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. The topic today the U.S. Census. I'm Rosemary Pennington. Joining me, our panelist Miami University Statistics Department chair John Bailer and Media, Journalism and Film Department chair Richard Campbell. Our special guest is John Thompson, director of the U.S. Census Bureau. So John, the census obviously collects a wealth of data and I teach journalism here at Miami and a lot of times my students are, they play with the U.S. Census data trying to find stories. Are there stories that are in the data that you wish journalists would do a better job of, sort of, mining out?

Thompson : You know, we're fortunate at the Census Bureau that we have a lot of information from a variety of different sources that we make available. What we try to do is to find ways to allow various consumers of our information to easily access the data and then turn that into stories. And so, we do things like if we're going to have a major data release we will allow the media to access it on an embargoed basis so that they can write informed stories. We have a series of tools that we've made available for specific aspects of our data. So we have something that's on our website called The City S.T.K. or city software development kit which is a tool aimed at developers so they can access our A.P.I. and get data usually that way. We have a tool that we call census business builder which links two of our data sets so that entrepreneurs and small business owners can access data that might help them make informed decisions, and we have a team of individuals across United States that we call data dissemination specialists. And they work with a variety of governments, local organizations, individuals that are interested in our data to help expose our data to them, and instruct them in how to use our data easily.

Bailer : Why is it so important that we get this information? What is some of the…that the training that you do, with the people that you're sending out, to reach those forty percent and some of the stories that you tell about the importance?

Thompson : The single census has a number of really really critical functions. So the first function is apportioning the House of Representatives. Another important function is that the data we collect is used in drawing fair and representative congressional districts and you know, and local legislative districts as well and so, this, this provides the basis for fair representation at local communities. We also conduct a major survey in conjunction with the census, it is called the American Community Survey and this collects a variety of information that is used to allocate over four hundred billion dollars a year in federal funding and so it's also important for communities to get their numbers right so that they are eligible to receive these funds.

Campbell : Over the years you've been doing this, what are some of your, sort of, frustrations, in terms of the ways that the Census is represented in news media articles, and a second part of this question is, what could journalists do a little bit better than maybe they're doing right now?

Thompson : We're pretty lucky that a lot of our data gets, you know, consumed in a good way. But sometimes there are some complex issues which do get the lines blurred. So, for example, we recently released the results of what we call our national content test, and this was a process that we used to determine, to do research, on how we would collect race and ethnicity data for the 2020 census. And this included a new category for Middle Eastern and North African people. There was a little bit of frustration here, that when these data came out, there were a lot of stories that said the Census Bureau is recommending that this be included on the 202 census and we really weren't saying that in what we were releasing. We were, we were saying that we have collected data to show that we have some new things that will produce accurate data but the next step we want to go forward with is now working with the Office of Management and Budget to go forward and determine the actual questions that will go on the twenty twenty census. We don't, at the Census Bureau unilaterally decide what goes on to the census or American Community Survey. That's a very deliberative process we go through with the Office of Management and Budget, that represents all the federal government needs that should be included there.

Bailer : You mentioned some of the technology that's being used now. What are some of the other really big changes that you've seen in the census over the last two or three decades?

Thompson : That's…that's a great question. So I started working at the Census Bureau at the tail end of the 1970 census, that's how back I can go! And the methodology has been essentially the same, and that is, you know, we construct an address list, we have to have geographic resources that will let us process that address list and assign it to the piece of geography, we got to mail out a self-response and we've done automated collection of the information off of the questionnaires that are mailed back. But over the years the way that's changed has been kind of dramatic. So you've seen just the growth in the Geospatial industry. And that's been a great boon to us, using you know all the new geographic tools that you can put in place, processes that we didn't have before. We've also seen real advances in the ability to process paper by doing scanning, intelligent character recognition and in this census, we will see the culmination of that. We will be using mobile technology now to collect information from those individuals that don't self-respond. There are some challenges though I should say that we've also seen. And that is, it's getting harder and harder to get high response rates to the surveys that we do and that's for a number reasons. This is that the American population is more diverse, they're more mobile, there's different ways of communication and we have to work a lot harder and offer a lot more ways to respond to keep up with that.

Campbell : What doesn't the general public understand about the work of the census? What are some of the things that could be communicated to them? I mean, I know you do that in terms of just your own frustrations, with you know, trying to do a census?

Thompson : That's also a good question. So I think there's there's two big parties there. One area is you know the census Bureau collects a lot of the information. We do an economic census, we do an American Community Survey, we produce income and poverty estimates, we produce thirteen major economic indicators. But I think a lot of the general public thinks that we just do the census every ten years. So that's one issue that we are constantly working with. And the other issue again is really working to convince the American people that, one, the information they provide is very important, and two, that we keep it very, very confidential. That's a big, big challenge that we are always facing, that we do not share data with anyone, that it comes in and it's held very, very secure.

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Pennington : You are listening to stats and stories. Our discussion today focuses on the US Census. Our guest is Census Bureau Director John Thompson. John, you've been there since, what you said, the end of the 1970 census? I think that's what you said earlier? Is there…

Thompson : Yeah, I took a little twelve year break, after the 2000 census. But again, I'm back.

Pennington : Yes, yes. Over the course of your career is there a trend in sort of the demographics that you've noticed that you found surprising, in terms of the makeup of the American population or again maybe something that's under covered or you know just that something you've noticed over time that you think is really interesting?

Thompson : One, just looking at the data, the American population has become you know more diverse by far. I don't think that's surprising to people that follow the numbers. The other thing that we've seen is the opportunities to really use technology in ways that we couldn't when I started. So when I started we actually really didn't even have you know I.B.M. mini computers or laptops and we certainly didn't have iPhones and iPads or tablets but the technology has just been very enabling.

Bailer : What would be one of the biggest surprises people might learn about…about working in a census or about what happens in a census?

Thompson : It may not be a surprise but it is just a huge logistical effort to conduct a census. And the amount of precision and planning and management that has to go into it, it is, I think, a lot more than people would think. The other thing that also I think surprises a lot of people is the cost of the census and because you have to really, like, you're not doing a survey or you're actually going every housing unit and so that that will cost a lot of money. So in 2010, the census cost a little over twelve billion dollars. And we, right now, we're introducing a lot of efficiencies for the 2020 census so we think, we will also do it, for probably around twelve and a half billion dollars.

Bailer : That's amazing!

Thompson : But that's still a lot of money.

Campbell : I'm going to switch gears a little bit. There's a lot of talk about fake news and alternative facts and as college professors and as teachers sort of responsible for helping our students learn about evidence, data, numbers, how to tell stories that are accurate and truthful, do you have any ideas on what we can do both as journalists and as statisticians to support informed decision making?

Thompson : You know, I think the important thing that we do, and an important thing that you do, is educate people on one the value of data, and two, how to use data to make informed decisions and not…and stress that and stress that.

Bailer : I'm going to ask a journalism question now. So, when you say the value of data one of the things my journalism friends will say, is that you know, there's a story here, there's sort of this this narrative. So, I know you had, you had mentioned earlier that the A.C.S. was associated with about a 400 billion dollars of federal fund allotment. What are some of the impacts of that? What are some of the ways in which that's being used?

Thompson : Sure. So it's used for…for a number purposes like support block grant funding to support their transportation infrastructure and planning for that, to support where you would put schools and money for schools. The other thing though that the American Community Survey also does, it also provides a valuable resource for cities, localities and for businesses. And a couple examples of just how that can be used is, the city of New Orleans took some of the American Community Survey data on Aging and low income, to identify areas in their cities, they should prioritize a program for giving out smoke detectors to prevent you know deaths from fires, which we thought was really really an ingenious use for our data. And then in the private sector there's lots of uses of our data that actually creates opportunities and jobs. So for example, Target company uses our data to make decisions on what to put in store so that things are readily available in localities. There's a company, a geospatial company, EZRI, which uses a lot of our data to put together a product that they call business analysts. They will then use to help businesses really make informed decisions.

Pennington : John, so you, you mentioned that you went basically, straight from school into working for the federal government. What advice might you have for students who would like to have a job in the federal government down the road, whether it's the Census or another Stats-focused organization? Why should they be thinking about what should they be studying?

Thompson : That's really interesting. I was talking to some people at Virginia Tech last night, about that very topic. And the advice I was giving them was, it's good to understand both computational sciences, how do, you know, how to how to process data, but the other the thing that's really important is also to have a grounding in mathematics and statistics. So that you understand not only how to process the data but how to do it right and that's the kind of thing that would get you a good job I believe, not just in the federal government, but in any company that's using, that relies on quantitative methods.

Campbell : So in your job, like when you went to school and studied, what you did…you are…you today, you have to deal with the public, you have to deal with the media, you know, how would you describe your training for that kind of work, and what helped you through…through that, to know that you had to, not only be able to talk to people who didn't have statistical backgrounds, but you had to communicate with, find different ways to communicate, complex material to your general audiences?

Thompson : I learned a little bit of that when I was in college, but the real training I received there was when I was at the Census Bureau. They had a, they had a really good way, and they still do have a really way of bringing in young people and helping them develop throughout their careers and…and understanding that, to be fully successful and to grow and reach executive positions you have to be able to communicate with the public. One you have to be able to take complex quantitative topics and translate them into ways in which the general public can understand. And it was a lot of mentoring, a lot of, you know, investment in my development that the Census bureau just did.

Bailer : So let me follow up on that. So what's…what's the hardest story to communicate about census work?

Thompson : I think it varies with different audiences, because there's different interests in the census. It's so diverse so one of…one of the issues we were just, we just felt were consultations with American tribal leaders, and their focus was on how we collect information on their…on their reservations, and we had to really work with them, to communicate with them why, you know, it's important to them to respond to the census, and also how we would do the census on the reservations, and then there are other groups, which also are different and have different needs, but it's really, there's just a really diverse group of different organizations, different individuals, different stakeholders, that we have to deal with, like for example, the Congress is also a very, very important stakeholder and they're…they're really more interested in, are you spending your money appropriately? Are you on schedule to do a successful census? And you know various issues like that.

Bailer : What do you like best about working at the census?

Thompson : I've been fortunate throughout my career both at the census and the NORC that I've been able to do things that actually will have a meaningful effect on the lives of the American people and will help advance its various societal goal. The work that I have been able to do has had an impact on improving the conditions of the American people.

Pennington : Well, John Thompson, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, thank you so much for being here today.

Thompson : You are welcome.

Pennington : That's all the time we have for this episode of stats and stories. Stats and Stories is a partnership between Miami University's Departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism and Film as well as the American Statistical Association. You can follow us on Twitter or iTunes. If you'd like to share your thoughts on the program send your e-mail to stats and stories at Miami Oh-H. dot edu and be sure to listen for future editions of Stats and Stories where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.