Tracking the Economy, Adapting to the Changing IT Infrastructure of American Business

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

Our name, the Census Bureau, suggests only the decennial census of population to many. However, we have more individual statistical programs that measure the economy than those measuring the population. From the Census Bureau, the US learns the key economic health of the manufacturing, retail, and other service sectors. The Census Bureau supplies the country its foreign trade statistics, key import and export data, which measure the relative success of American goods abroad and our consumption of other countries’ products. We track the construction of new homes, how housing starts are changing across the country. We measure the fiscal condition of state and local governments. We inform the country about the financial position of US corporations, annually on capital investment in new and used structures and equipment together with expenses for information and communications technology infrastructure. We measure the volume and change in businesses owned by women and minorities. There are hundreds of separate statistical programs that we run, which in these times of economic hardship, are the key metrics about how we’re doing as an economy.

Many of these statistics come from samples of businesses. We ask one or more staff members in the chosen companies to answer a set of questions, often much shorter than the set we ask of individual households in our household surveys.

The group of economists and statisticians who design and conduct these surveys are some of the most innovative in the Bureau. They have offered businesses alternative ways of responding to our requests – paper forms, faxed forms, email, downloadable electronic forms, and internet response. As the internet matured, our software matured.

For the Quarterly Financial Report, one of most important surveys monitoring the health of American business, internet use has been increasing. The Report has three forms, two long forms with 62 data items, and one short form with 36 data items. The format of the form is a standard Income Statement and Balance Sheet that is well known to the business community. By the fourth quarter 2007 for the long forms the collection rate by the internet was 53%, and for the short form it was 39% making the overall collection a total of 47% through the internet. In the fourth quarter of 2010, the long form collection rate by internet was 73% and the short form was 54% making the overall collection a total of 65% through the internet.

We’ve learned that not all businesses find internet use an attractive option, and many of our economic surveys must continue to offer these businesses paper forms. For these we’ve looked for ways to get more efficient. We’ve developed a computer-assisted data entry system, now used to support 38 different surveys and censuses, internationally. The system is a comprehensive data capture solution that facilitates the batching, scanning, registration, interpretation, quality control measurement, error containment, and an exception review process while providing scanned digital images of respondent questionnaires in real time.</p.

The system provides customers with checkbox Optical Mark Recognition (OMR), Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and Key from Image (KFI) data capture options, and quality assurance (QA) modules to ensure an overall error rate of 1% or less.

It’s cost efficient. For example, in 2007 Economic Census the use of the system contributed to an estimated cost savings of 5 million, saving approximately 50 percent of costs associated with batching, scanning and keying paper questionnaires. Further, its use in the 2007 Economic Census enabled an increase of 50% more documents keyed per hour than in 2002 Economic Census.

The management of these programs introduced cost-efficiencies in these processes, because it is convinced that the only way to continue providing the needed statistical information is by innovating in our data collection and processing practices. Our country’s business community is incredibly diverse, in its computer infrastructure, technical sophistication, and discretionary resources. We must tailor our methods to their characteristics. With such tailoring, we can continue providing us all the needed signals regarding the health of American business.

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2 Responses to Tracking the Economy, Adapting to the Changing IT Infrastructure of American Business

  1. concernedemployee@census.gov says:

    I would gladly work 35-38 hours per week, if that meant someone could keep their job.

  2. You say “38 different surveys and censuses”, how many of those are required by law does a American business, employing 5 people, have to fill in?
    Thank you.

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