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As Census Bureau preps for 2020, St. Louis will be a test site

This fall, U.S. Census Bureau workers will come to St. Louis to verify, using in part smartphones, the agency's address lists, compiled using a new method. Those lists will help the Bureau conduct the 2020 Census.
U.S. Census Bureau
This fall, U.S. Census Bureau workers will come to St. Louis to verify, using in part smartphones, the agency's address lists, compiled using a new method. Those lists will help the Bureau conduct the 2020 Census.

If you've ever wondered how the U.S. Census Bureau prepares to count the nation's population every 10 years, a new test being done in St. Louis offers some insight.

Long before Census survey forms are sent out to the public, the Bureau begins by building an accurate address list and maps to count "everyone once and only once and in the right place," said Deirdre Bishop, chief of the decennial census management division. 

In the past, that's meant sending 100,000 employees across the country to check - in person - that each address on its lists exist. But in preparation for the 2020 Census, the agency is streamlining its process.

"Instead of sending a Census worker to walk every street in America, we’ve been using technology and new information sources to update our address list," Bishop said. 

That includes getting address lists from local, state and tribal governments and "using satellite imagery to detect change on the landscape," she said. Even better, most of this work can be done from in the office, significantly reducing the costly need for so many boots on the ground.

"We believe we can validate 75 percent of the addresses as stable in the office, and that we’ll only have to send 25 percent of the addresses out for validation on the ground," Bishop said. 

But to be sure that the information gathered using this new method actually reflects what's in neighborhoods across the country, the Bureau needs to test the procedure.

That's where St. Louis comes in. The city was one of two chosen as test sites, where Census workers will go to verify the address list generated in this new way.

Bishop said St. Louis is the right type of place to conduct this test - perhaps for reasons residents wouldn't like.

"It's experienced sustained population and housing loss over the past several decades," Bishop said. "With that said, St. Louis contains recent redevelopment, particularly near to its downtown commercial area. This gives us a good chance to see what’s in our address list and how change has occurred over the past few years."

In other words, a lot of addresses have changed in St. Louis since the 2010 Census.

"This test gives us an opportunity to focus on an area that contains small and large multi-unit structures, commercial-to-residential conversions, and mixed commercial and residential uses, as well as to study vacant housing – all important criteria to consider when building a good address list," she said.

If the Bureau can account for these changes using only data from local sources and satellite imagery, and on the ground testing shows the lists generated are accurate, the new method is a go to use in 2020.

That would come with a lot of savings - to the tune of $900 million, Bishop said. 

"The good news is we're able to do testing early on," she said. "If we find for some reason the procedures aren't what we expected, we can make the changes now."

The testing will begin in October and will be finished by the end of the year. Most St. Louisans won't even notice when testing begins, since it doesn't involve a survey. Census workers may talk with building managers or landlords of multi-unit buildings to find out how many apartments are in a location.

Bishop said the Bureau is hiring 150 people to conduct the address canvassing test. To qualify, applicants must be able to read, write, read maps, work with mapping tools on smartphones, and interact with the public. Positions start in August. 

Once this address canvassing testing is completed, the Bureau will conduct an "end to end" test starting in the fall of 2017 and ending at the close of 2018, to "validate our operations and systems are working properly in preparation for the 2020 Census," Bishop said. Additional address canvassing will be done in the fall of 2019.

Lastly, Census Day will be April 1, 2020.