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Census Bureau Tests New Online Survey In Small Towns Ahead Of 2020

The nation is halfway between census years. The next decennial U.S. Census is coming up in 2020. And for the first time, it'll be offered online. That means census officials have lots of work to do to make sure no one is left behind.

For several months this year, the Rev. Thurmond Tillman has been working for the Census Bureau. His main gig is at First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., where's he's been a pastor for more than 30 years.

The sun isn't quite up, but Tillman is already on the road. He crisscrosses coastal Georgia and South Carolina in his black sedan.

"I don't get up before dawn often, but when I get up, it's pretty much an all-day journey," he says.

His job is to meet with just about anyone who will have him, like a group of public school principals in Jasper County, S.C.

"It is 2015, so I know you're looking at me like, 'Well why are you here,' " he tells them. "It's a census test, the 2015 census test."

Tillman makes his pitch, reminding the group that census data is used to make sure the region gets proper representation in Congress, as well as federal funding for a host of local needs. He asks for help getting the word out to students who can, in turn, reach their parents.

"We know in many cases it will be your actual students who will be assisting in getting the census done," he says. "Because they can get right on the computer and get it done."

Young people will be key, Tillman says, because the census test — like the real thing in 2020 — will be primarily online. Paper will still be an option, but the Census Bureau believes it can save $5 billion on things like data collection and processing.

Like older incarnations of the U.S. Census, people who respond online will be assigned a household ID number, matched to their home address. But U.S. Census Bureau Director John Thompson says the 2020 survey will be "fundamentally different than any census we've ever taken before."

There's still plenty to figure out, like how to reach traditionally hard-to-count groups and how to motivate people to take the internet-based survey.

"What we hope to learn in this test is really about the accuracy of internet responses," Thompson says. "So we're gonna be analyzing the data to really assess the accuracy of it."

The census ran a smaller test in and around Washington, D.C., last year. Another, in Maricopa County, Ariz., is looking at how to follow up with people who don't respond. Thompson says the census chose the Savannah area for its economic and racial diversity, and its urban and rural mix.

In Jasper County, School Superintendent Vashti Washington suggests reaching out to local phone companies for help spreading the message to older residents.

"Especially for our senior citizens; a lot of them are not technologically savvy and they are afraid of the technology," she says. "So with identifying them through the phone system, I think that that would help."

Another challenge, census officials say, is planning for an Internet-based survey that's still five years away, at a time when technology is evolving quickly.

"I think one of the biggest challenges is to cast off your understanding of the world as you know it today, and that's really hard to do," says Rick Hutley, director of the analytics program at the University of the Pacific.

While a lot will change by 2020, Hutley says he expects social media to play an important role in encouraging participation.

The U.S. Census Bureau is using social media and traditional advertising to get the word out about the Savannah census test. It runs through the end of May.

Copyright 2020 Georgia Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
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