Evaluating the American Community Survey: The ACS Content Review

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Written by John H. Thompson

Every month of every year, and in every county across the nation, a relatively small number of households receive notice that they have been randomly selected to receive the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The American Community Survey, or ACS, is the lesser known part of the every-ten-year census. To produce more timely statistics between census years, the former “census long form” questions were moved to this rolling survey format after the 2000 Census.

Many of the detailed socio-economic and housing questions on the American Community Survey can trace their genesis back to the 19th century, some even earlier.  James Madison, Father of the Constitution and fourth U.S. president, ensured that the Constitution authorized Congress to include questions in the census that provided the level of detail needed to effectively govern the new country.

“In order to accommodate our laws to the real situation of our constituents,” he explained, “we ought to be acquainted with that situation.”

Today, the American Community Survey provides the objective basis for the distribution of more than $400 billion in federal programming decisions. ACS statistics are used by all communities to more clearly plan for investments and services.

Quality ACS statistics are dependent on the participation of all households in the survey. The survey takes time to fill out, with more than 70 questions on dozens of topics.

That’s why we began a top-to-bottom review of the American Community Survey – to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the uses, justification, and merit of each question on the ACS. Is it possible to reduce the burden on households while still producing the quality information the nation needs?

We are asking federal agencies – the primary data users – to detail their specific data needs, especially as those needs relate to four particular questions on the survey: respondents’ income, disability status, journey to work and household plumbing facilities. We also are asking for details from state, local and tribal governments, along with the business community. We need to know if the American Community Survey is the only suitable vehicle to collect the information each question generates.

We are working with the Office of Management and Budget to establish criteria for evaluating all reported data uses. This will factor in elements such as whether the data are required by federal law, whether the data are needed to manage a required program, and whether the data are needed for small geographies. We encourage you to provide feedback about your or your organization’s data needs. Ultimately, the findings will form the basis of recommendations for the future of the survey. Our goal is that the ACS would provide the most useful information with the least amount of burden. To follow this process and sign up for updates, visit our ACS Content Review web page.

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Collecting Reliable, Timely and Local Census Data

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Written by: John H. Thompson

I was pleased to participate last week in the inaugural conference of the American Community Survey Data Users Group.  This conference brought together a diverse group of data-loving number crunchers from local governments, nonprofits, economic development agencies, researchers and private sector companies from across the U.S. Their common connection: the reliable, timely and local data about their communities provided by the American Community Survey.

Sessions included case studies on how the American Community Survey statistics are used by cities, rural communities and businesses to measure disaster impacts, create jobs and develop policy for transit, housing and health care. Data users said the ACS is the most authoritative source of data on these topics for communities of every size, and how they rely on the availability of a common source of reliable data.

I was also asked about the challenges to survey data collection, the availability of the data and the impacts to the American Community Survey. They asked me what would happen to the survey if it were not mandated by law. As we have explained in the past, we have looked at this question and our research shows that a voluntary survey would reduce the self-response rates significantly.  To make up the shortfall, we would have to increase the number of households surveyed and conduct much more in-person follow-up, at an additional cost of more than $90 million annually. If we weren’t able to increase the number of households surveyed we would collect much less data and accuracy would decrease due to increased sampling variation.  This would disproportionately affect the accuracy of the results that we produce for many small areas and small population groups.

The maps below illustrate this.  Both maps show the percentages of census tracts within each county that have acceptable levels of quality data. The first map shows the percentages under the current, mandatory approach. As a mandatory survey, less than five percent of counties have 80 percent or more of their tracts with unacceptable levels of quality data. This impacts about 2.48 million people.

ACS Map Mandatory

As a voluntary survey (second map), with the reductions in sample size (assuming that the budget would stay fixed), the number of counties with 80 percent of the tracts having unacceptable data would increase to 751 and would include more than 61 million people in the affected areas.

ACS Map Voluntary

Canada’s census agency, Statistics Canada, experienced a drop in participation when it moved to a voluntary survey in 2011. The response rate dropped from 90 percent in 2006 to 69 percent in 2011. Due to poor reliability with estimates, there are now a large number of communities in Canada for which there are no statistics released on the general welfare and composition of the population.

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Research for 2020 Census Continues – Census Bureau Opens Temporary Office

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Census Bureau Director John Thompson speaks at the opening of the Local Census Office for the 2014 Census Test in Silver Spring, Md.

Census Bureau Director John Thompson speaks at the opening of the Local Census Office for the 2014 Census Test in Silver Spring, Md.

Written by: John H. Thompson

Today, we marked an important milestone on the road to the 2020 Census with the opening of the Local Census Office for the 2014 Census Test. We will conduct the test in parts of Washington D.C. and Montgomery County, Md., and it was gratifying to see the community support for this important research endeavor.

 Why is it so important to conduct this first of several field tests now? By investing in this research and testing, we can take steps to reduce the cost of the census and make it easier for people to respond. Those who are selected to participate in the 2014 Census Test are helping us produce a better census in 2020.

For the test, July 1, 2014, is Census Day, or the reference day for measuring the population of the test area. I strongly encourage you to participate, if selected, and be a part of building an innovative and cost-effective 2020 Census. Approximately 200,000 households will be included in the test. Respondents should fill out the questionnaire based on the people and circumstances of their household as of July 1, 2014.

 Participating, if selected, is not the only way you can help us with the test. We are also hiring about 1,000 temporary workers locally to conduct it. If you live in the area and are interested in applying for a job, you can find more information here.

We will have a series of tests leading up to the 2020 Census and for the 2014 Census Test, some of our research will test Internet response. Although the 2010 Census did not offer it as an option, we have been using it for the American Community Survey and other surveys for several years now. Our enumerators will also use a smartphone app for quicker and more accurate data collection from non-responding households.

In addition, for some households, we will test a pre-registration portal, a new concept that allows you, the respondent, to tell us how you would like to be contacted, in the way that is most convenient for you. These contact methods include email, text messages, standard mail or phone with directions how to pre-register and/or respond to the 2014 Census Test.

All of these efforts are important, because even though 2020 may be several years away, the Census Bureau has to make key design decisions by the end of next year. The way we get to those decisions is through results of the 2014 Census Test and other research we are conducting.

We want to take advantage of both technology and information in 2020 to potentially reduce the overall cost by $5 billion compared to conducting the census on paper.

I will continue to update you on our progress toward a 2020 Census that is on time and on budget. Remember, we must invest now to save later.

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On the Road in North Dakota

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Written by: John H. Thompson

Oil Well in North DakotaSince my confirmation hearing last August, I have had several conversations about the rapid population growth in North Dakota with Senators Heitkamp and Hoeven. Recent Census Bureau statistics have repeatedly reinforced the trends we discussed—how the booming oil and gas industry was attracting people to the state.

I knew I not only needed to see the growth first-hand but meet with officials and people throughout North Dakota to see how to best measure it, both in our population estimates and as we prepare for the 2020 Census. The growth was truly like nothing I have ever seen, and I was equally as amazed by the warmth of the people I met along the way.

I began my trip in Fargo to conduct market research. Fargo is an example of how the state is growing, in this case not from oil but from growth in other industries. In fact, the Fargo metro area was one of the fastest growing in the country with a rate of 3.1 percent from 2012 to 2013. Its population in 2013 was 223,490.

Like Fargo, the Bismarck metro area is rapidly growing and also grew 3.1 percent from 2012 to 2013. I visited the capital city to meet with Governor Dalrymple as well as members of the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, and leaders of North Dakota tribes. Listening to how the growth is affecting them and their ideas for getting an accurate 2020 count provided great insight into understanding the issues we face, particularly in tribal areas.

Following my meetings in the capital, I drove from Bismarck to Williston, going through Dickinson and Watford City. As we moved away from the outskirts of Bismarck, oil wells began to appear and the highway became dotted with tanker trucks. By the time we reached Williston, the growth was apparent everywhere as new apartment complexes, hotels and restaurants sprung up on every corner.

Before returning home, I toured Williston and met with officials from several nearby towns. All expressed their interest in ensuring accurate counts of their communities as they see an influx of people working in the oil industry.

I can’t thank the people of North Dakota enough for their hospitality during my trip. It was my first visit to North Dakota, and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the state and learning about its rapidly growing cities and industries.

For more information, please see the recent release of city and town population estimates.

Note: To read more about Director Thompson’s trip to North Dakota, visit his story map.

screen shot of story map

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20 Years of Census.gov

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Written by: John H. Thompson

Two decades ago, the World Wide Web was in its infancy compared to today and if you wanted Census Bureau statistics, you had no choice but to go to your local library to look up the information. All of that changed in 1994 with the launch of census.gov, one of the first government agencies to have a public website.

If you visited census.gov back then, you likely did so from a dial up internet connection, and you would have only found access to 1990 Census statistics.

Times have changed. Today, all of the statistics we produce are available at your fingertips and you can even respond to many of our surveys online.

Over the years, census.gov had had many “faces” as we have tried to revise the site to meet the demands of the day. Today, we are launching a new census.gov, built to showcase America’s data resources through topical navigation.

The new census.gov brings together demographic and economic content around topics such as health, income and poverty, education, housing and population.

 If you are interested in our health statistics, you can now access the “Health” web page to learn about Census Bureau statistics on disability, fertility, health insurance, healthcare industries, small area health insurance estimates, HIV/AIDS, social assistance and industries. In addition, theme pages will highlight a variety of content from working papers, publications, interactive tools and more. To help you find what you need, many of the pages also now include links to related content and popular services at the bottom.

While the first census.gov launched only five years after the world wide web began, it is not the only example of how the Census Bureau has always been on the leading edge of technology in the government. From Herman Hollerith’s first tabulating machine, used for the 1890 Census, to UNIVAC 1, one of the first civilian computers, to advancements in how we deliver our statistics to you today, we are using the latest technological advancements to better measure America.

With the launch of our Application Programming Interface in 2012, containing three decades worth of census statistics, and our mobile apps, we are taking advantage of the latest technology to change how we do business.

How will the face of census.gov and the Census Bureau look in another 20 years? No doubt the possibilities will be endless. One thing is certain, however, we will continue to use 21st century technology to meet our centuries-old mission of making the statistics that define our growing, changing nation more accessible to you than ever before.

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