Census Bureau Recognized at White House Innovation Event

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Written by: Tom Mesenbourg, Acting Director

Yesterday at the White House, U.S. Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel recognized the Census Bureau as a leader in the effort to make government information more easily accessible to the public. He also used the opportunity to announce that our America’s Economy mobile app is now available for iPhone and iPad.  Congratulations to everyone who made this happen.  It truly was a team effort involving staff from the Communications, Information Technology, and the Research directorates as well staff from all our program directorates.

The Census Bureau is meeting the goals of the three-month-old Federal Digital Strategy by providing faster and easier access to the statistics we produce through the recently released mobile app and our Application Programming Interface, which offers developers and users greater access to 2010 Census and American Community Survey data.

Yesterday’s ceremony, and the recognition was  very nice, but these are just two examples of how the Census Bureau is innovating every day.   You can read VanRoekel’s blog here.

Posted in About the Agency, Digital Transformation | 3 Comments

The Times, They Are a-Changin’

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Written by: Tom Mesenbourg, Acting Director

As you know, Census Bureau Director, Bob Groves, resigned August 11, 2012 to become Provost at Georgetown University.  Bob was an inspirational leader and it was a privilege and a joy to work closely with him the past three years.

Effective August 12, I was appointed Acting Director.  I am honored to have been asked to lead this great organization and I look forward to working closely with our stakeholders, oversight organizations, partners, data suppliers, data users, and Census Bureau staff to make the Census Bureau an ever more efficient, effective, and responsive organization.  Dr. Nancy Potok is the new Deputy Director and I could not be more pleased.

We face a challenging future.  Resources will be constrained and possibly reduced.  Getting businesses, institutions, and households to participate in surveys and censuses will become more difficult.  Policy makers, public and private decision makers, and the general public demands for relevant, timely information will grow, and users will expect information to be easily accessible and to be available for small geographic areas and small population groups.

To respond to this future we must change.  We need to change the way we collect, compile, and produce statistics. We must offer multiple response options that facilitate reporting and reduce reporting burden. We must be more attentive and responsive to data providers concerns. And finally we must find ways to integrate Census Bureau data sets with public and private data sets  to develop new low cost products. I am excited about the initiatives we currently have underway that promise to transform our methods, processes, and products and you will hear more about them in future blogs.

I have been at the Census Bureau for almost 40 years, but I am more convinced than ever that we need to continue to innovate. Our employees have demonstrated that they can be engines of innovation and over the past several years, they have submitted hundreds of great ideas that save money and improve products and processes. We also need to be attuned to the concerns of our data providers. In January 2013, we will roll out an Internet reporting option for the American Community Survey that will make reporting easier for sampled households.

We also need to make our statistics more accessible, both for every day users and those who are just discovering them. On July 26, we released our first-ever Application Programming Interface (API), allowing developers to create apps using 2010 Census and American Community Survey information. We are already seeing developers create some great apps from the API.

During the first week of August, we followed up the release of the API with our first-ever mobile app, America’s Economy. This app provides users with instant access to 16 key economic indicators from not only the Census Bureau but also the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The economist in me finds this app a cool new tool, and I encourage all of you to check it out and tell us how we can make it even more useful.

What information is available from the America’s Economy app? Last week, we released advance monthly retail sales. The app will show you that that advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for July, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $403.9 billion, an increase of 0.8 percent (±0.5%) from the previous month and 4.1 percent (±0.7%) above July 2011.

The API and America’s Economy app are just the beginning when it comes to making our statistics more accessible and easier to use. In the coming months, you will see two more mobile apps from the Census Bureau. These apps will highlight the breadth of our statistics and the ways people can use them. You will also see changes coming to census.gov as we transform our website to place the statistics you need at your fingertips.

Posted in About the Agency, Digital Transformation, Measuring America | 1 Comment

The Data-to-Statistics Chain

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

Federal statistical agencies face a set of common problems about which I’ve blogged in the past (The Future of Producing Social and Economic Statistical Information, Part I) — declining response rates producing cost inflation, meeting the demand for more timely statistics on smaller and smaller groups, harnessing new technologies, integrating new data sources into traditional survey statistical processes, and doing this all with declining budgets.  I’m convinced that the talent among the Census Bureau staff and its partners is up to the task of transforming the organization to meet future challenges.

However, not all challenges are technical or scientific.  One is ubiquitous to many common-good functions in a society – we take for granted essential facilitators of our day-to-day lives.  We count on electricity to power our electronic devices; we rely on clean water coming from our faucets at home; we assume our telephone calls will go through when we make them; we expect the bridges we drive over will support our cars.

These features of our lives are so central to our daily routines that we have trouble assigning a value to them.  Without them, our lives would be incomparable to our current ones.  What’s it worth to you to have clean water?  If the bridge didn’t exist, what would you be willing to spend to build it?  How central to our lives are these common good features?  Indeed, could we live without them, as a cost-saving strategy?

I have a cousin raised in an urban area who in her youth answered the question of “Where do peas come from?”  She said, “Peas come from the can my mother opens in the kitchen.”  She was correct, of course, but ignorant about the ultimate source of the vegetables, the farmer’s field.

Statistical information is a bit like that.  Every day we see in the paper statistical information purporting to describe our world.  To many people, that paper is the can of peas.  The media provided the information.  The faucet produced the clean water.  The outlet produced the electricity.

One of the key challenges to statistical agencies is to communicate their benefits to the larger society.  However, to fulfill the challenge, they need to describe a long chain of events.  The chain begins with residents of the society, who give freely their answers to surveys and censuses trusting in a pledge of confidentiality.  It ends with them using statistical aggregates of all those answers, to make important personal, community, and national decisions.  The statistical agency starts the whole chain of events, but there are many independent intermediaries.  If you don’t know the chain, you may misjudge the value of different steps in the chain.

When people understand the chain and appreciate the statistical information it produces, better informed judgments are made about the value of agencies to the society.  Clear, plain English, simple explanations of the data-to-statistics chain are a continual challenge.  We all need to do our part.

Note: This will be the last blog I write as Census Bureau director.  I have been honored to serve as director, and I hope future appointments for this position will be made from among scientists who are committed to technical innovations in the production of statistical information.  The Census Bureau must be a scientific organization to fulfill its mission because science is devoted to innovation and continuous improvement.

Posted in About the Agency, Measuring America | 4 Comments

And Now, for Something a Little Different . . .

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

Several posts ago, I outlined a set of thoughts (The Future of Producing Social and Economic Statistical Information, Part I, Part II, Part III) of how statistical agencies might navigate the future.  How should they react to massive data sets that are being produced daily through internet search, social media, and administrative data processing?  Can these sources of information about social and economic activities be combined in some effective way to reduce the burden of the American public in responding to surveys and censuses?  How should agencies react to increasing demands for more timely and more disaggregated statistical information on the society and the economy?

Most records of companies, governments, and other organizations that formerly were on paper are now digitized.  The phrase “big data,” which is increasingly being used, applies to some of these data.  One source of “big data” is the management information systems that are part of modern manufacturing, financial, and transportation firms. Other “big data” sources are consumer transactions data, internet site content, traffic camera data, and a whole host of others.  Many of them are designed to be used to administer some process (e.g., a retail sales company, a program of support payments), but they could also be aggregated to produce statistics useful to the country.

Statistical agencies like the Census Bureau have the sole purpose to produce such statistical aggregations.  The methods and practices employed by these agencies lead to high quality benchmark products that trusted by a broad range of stakeholders.  These aggregated products are contrasted from identifiable inform, they also are governed by laws that prohibit revealing the identity of those described by the data.

The Census Bureau has outlined a vision that addresses a key challenge: the society needs more timely statistics; there is no money to pay for the added information.  To do this, we are developing a new system for data collection, data integration, and real-time estimation, to offer cheaper, faster, and potentially better statistical information for the country:

  1. Whenever possible we will offer multiple modes to collect data – internet, mail, telephone, face-to-face, as well as use of administrative records, all under very tight security controls.  This will allow us to reduce costs by using the most cost efficient tool for each sample unit.
  2. We will use empirical quality criteria to manage our follow-up efforts on cases, deciding when to switch modes of data collection and, more importantly, when the cost and quality criteria suggest that we should terminate efforts at data collection.
  3. This will require us to perform near-real-time monitoring of the progress of data collections and to estimate preliminary statistics (fully edited and imputed) each day of the data collection.
  4. For survey statistics that can be improved by combining them with external data sources, the real-time estimation will utilize those sources.

This vision has the goal of not burdening American households and business with questions to be used for social and economic statistics, when the information already exists in some record.  Indeed, this vision will allow us to optimize our survey data collection efforts to fill critical gaps in administrative and other record systems.  It continues the strong pledges of confidentiality that are essential to a statistical agency.    Finally, it allows us to more nimbly meet the needs of our stakeholders for timely, relevant and reliable data. To realize this vision, we are building a “mixed-mode data collection” system that will provide the ability to improve our statistics by combining relevant other data sources along with the survey/census data that we collect.  It will allow us to offer respondents a mode of data collection that minimizes their burden.  It will permit real-time monitoring of data collection to reassign cases to the best mode, to import administrative records or other relevant external data when appropriate, and to reduce the costs of large scale surveys for a given quality target of the statistics.

What’s the role of “big data” in this vision?  To be useful statistically, a “big data” set must have some relation to the statistical goals of a Census Bureau program.  For example, some transaction data contain a recorded time of the transaction.  These might be useful if our current survey data have time recorded.  Each month we measure sales of firms by asking them to report them.  If we had access to customer purchase transactions volume, we might construct models blending our benchmark sample survey data with the continuous transaction data, to produce more timely and more disaggregated estimates.  The strength of the transaction data will be their timeliness and the large number of transactions they reflect; their weakness will be that they do not include many transactions conducted in ways other than those the data reflect (e.g., cash might be omitted).  The strength of our benchmark survey will be its statistical coverage of the entire population of business units; its weakness is its lack of timeliness and its relatively small sample size of firms.  Combined, the “big data” and the benchmark survey data can produce better statistics.

Sometimes the link between our sample surveys and the big data will be time, other times it will be space. “Big data” will be useful for constructing small area estimates.  For example, internet sites listing asking prices for houses may be accompanied with exact location of the units.  Their strength is that they offer millions of records of prospective sales; their weakness is that they don’t cover all areas of the country, not all sales are covered, and asking prices are not sale prices.  Our sample survey on residential sales offers statistical coverage of all sales, but its sample size is too small to provide statistics on all areas.  Combining the two data series might offer more spatial detail.

At other times, the link between the big data and our sample survey data may be measures that are highly correlated to our key statistics.  For example, we might have access to traffic volume data continuously streaming based on traffic cameras, with location codes to permit fine spatial detail.  Our sample survey reports of commuting times from home to place of work might be enhanced by statistically combining them with the traffic count data from available cameras.  The strength of the traffic camera counts would be very fine grain detail on time; the weakness would be coverage of all roads and counts of commercial traffic as well as private cars.

So the system we are building permits the ingestion of auxiliary information from “big data” sets and their use in improving the estimation of key attributes of the society and economy we monitor.

Data will be the cheapest commodity in the future.  Extracting useful information from the data, however, will be the expertise in greatest demand.  Maintaining the strong confidentiality pledges of Census Bureau data is of paramount importance.  The challenge to the Census Bureau is accessing available data (wherever they might be) and using them in ways to enhance the quality of statistical information we provide the public.

Posted in About the Agency, Digital Transformation, Measuring America | 1 Comment

Why Are Some Census Surveys Mandatory?

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

In an earlier post, I commented on the mandatory nature of some of the Census Bureau surveys.  Congress has directed over time that some surveys and censuses produce such important information to the country that law mandates participation. These include a few of the surveys producing key economic indicators, the decennial census, and the American Community Survey.  Most of the surveys we conduct aren’t mandatory, just the most important ones.

Fines are authorized upon prosecution of failure to participation or deliberate false reports.  Historically, the Census Bureau has rarely prosecuted violation of those laws.


We have come to believe over time that the most important attribute of the laws is that they communicate the importance of the survey or census to the country.  For example, it is increasingly common that we are receiving scores of requests weekly to do something – return a postcard to get a discount, act now to save on car repairs, complete a customer profile to get a credit card offer, etc.. Our requests for surveys and censuses arrive at households and businesses mixed together with junk and spam mail, bills, advertising, and other items competing for our time and attention.

We have found that plain envelopes sent to households from the Census Bureau are often tossed in the trash.  However, through past research we know that when we see on an envelope or an internet message that our participation is required by law, we pay more attention.  Its attention-grabbing value is that it is rarely used.  When these envelopes are opened, householders see the request and why it is important that they participate.  When people understand why they should take a few minutes and complete the questionnaire or interview, the vast majority of Americans freely give the information requested.  Over 97% of the American Community Survey households complete the survey!   If we dropped the mandatory nature, we would spend much more taxpayer money following up those who do not immediately respond.  The savings to the taxpayer come directly from the mandatory nature of the survey. The statistics produced from it are invaluable because they are the country’s only source of small area estimates on social and demographic characteristics.

Census surveys that are mandated by Congress are deemed important enough to the national interest to require an individual’s participation.  Like other civic obligations such as registering for the selective service or reporting for jury duty, the imposition on the individual is considered necessary to achieve a broader goal.  The country needs a ready pool of potential draftees in time or war, or in the case of the Census, helping communities large and small know where we are headed economically and demographically.  In America, these penalties are rarely required because we are a society that overwhelmingly honors our civic duties.

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