NNIP Recap and Census 2020 Thoughts

by Bob Gradeck

June 6, 2018

Last month, I attended the Spring, 2018 partner meeting of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) in Atlanta, Georgia. NNIP is a network of practice for community data intermediaries managed by the Urban Institute. NNIP partners in over 30 cities collect and transform neighborhood data, promote the use of data, and use information to improve the lives of people in marginalized communities. As always, the team at the Urban Institute assembled a great agenda for the meeting, and our good friends in Atlanta at Neighborhood Nexus and the Atlanta Regional Commission truly raised the bar as a local host. We’re also grateful that our Atlanta friends also hosted the first workshop of the Civic Switchboard project that brought together librarians and civic data intermediaries from 11 communities the day before the partner meeting.  

At the partner meeting, the overall theme was equity and data. There was a mix of presentations covering topics like monitoring residential instability, communicating with data to advance racial equity, and managing civic technology projects in local ecosystems. There was also a panel covering equity issues in Atlanta organized by our local hosts, along with a series of Atlanta tours touching on the broader theme of equity. The reception featuring barbecue and generous drinks was just about the only thing on the agenda that didn’t come with an equity lens. Our partners in Philadelphia and Houston wrote about their experiences at the meeting, so be sure to check out their blogs.

I found one of the participant-led “unconference” sessions on the 2020 Census particularly relevant to recent local conversations here in Pittsburgh, so my thoughts will be focused on that topic in the rest of this post. Readers may be aware that the Census is essential in determining political representation, allocating hundreds of billions of dollars in Federal funding, and providing a detailed understanding of our nation.

Why people are worried about the Census

While community mobilizations to encourage participation in the decennial Census are nothing new, there is particular worry that the count will fall short in 2020. People most-likely to be missed in the count include families with children under age 5, foreign born people, minorities, and the poor. These participation concerns are magnified by the following three major changes to the 2020 Census:

  • A citizenship question was recently added to the Census for the first time since 1950, and raised fears that the Census may become politicized. The impact of adding this question in our current political climate could well mean that people not born in the U.S. or those living with someone in a vulnerable situation will be reluctant to participate. Since this question was added very late in the process, the standard processes for testing the impact of this question on participation were not conducted, so we really won’t know how much its inclusion will affect response rates.
  • For the first time, many of the responses to the Census in 2020 will be collected over the internet. There is worry that people with low digital literacy, people without access to digital devices, and people living in communities without reliable high-speed internet service may not be counted.
  • The budget for the Census has also been drastically reduced in comparison to previous efforts. According to meeting attendees, the number of visits enumerators make to non-respondents will fall by at least two-thirds compared to 2010. In 2010, enumerators made as many as six in-person visits to people that did not respond.  
What’s a data intermediary to do?

Local conversations around how to mobilize for the 2020 Census have started to ramp-up, and a Complete Count Committee is being formed to help develop an overall outreach strategy. Local conversations and the discussion at NNIP enabled me to organize my thoughts on what the Regional Data Center can do to support the Census as a data intermediary. I found it helpful to frame possible roles in terms of things to do before and during the count. We would need to raise funding to develop and scale these ideas.

Before the count
  • Our staff is equipped to provide data to inform planning efforts, and are very interested in creating a local version of the New York Planning Labs’ Population Fact Finder. If we were to adapt this open-source tool for local use, people in our community would be able to explore Census and other place-based data to identify communities that can be the focus of outreach efforts. We envision this code base would serve as the next iteration of our Southwestern Pennsylvania Community Profiles tool.  
  • We can also begin to prioritize the collection and publication of data important to outreach efforts in 2020. Data on community assets like public wi-fi hotspots, libraries, ESL Class locations, and computer labs can be very important to outreach efforts. It makes sense to assemble a comprehensive list of target administrative datasets, developing processes and relationships needed to collect asset data from communities, and begin collecting and sharing this data on the open data portal before 2020.
  • Inspired by the Data Refuge Storytelling project run by colleagues in Philadelphia, now is the time to start telling the story of all of the different ways people in our community use data from the Census. These stories can both provide inspiration for data lovers, and raise awareness of how the Census impacts everyone’s lives. We’ll soon have a student joining us to begin to capture stories from several Regional Data Center users this summer, and would like to broaden this effort to tell stories about Census data users.
  • Last year at the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership Summit, we worked with staff from the Census Bureau to pilot a workshop that could be used to generate ideas in how to reach potentially hard to count people. We would be interested in showing others how to replicate this workshop and use other engagement tools in order to capture outreach ideas directly from community members and local stakeholders. These workshops can also help to prioritize the collection and publication of datasets to support outreach efforts.
During the count
  • The Census plans to provide updates on Census completions in local communities through an API, and community mapping tools like the one developed in New York City can be modified to provide daily updates on where people are completing the Census. This real-time information will help to identify successful outreach techniques, and allocate resources to areas with the greatest opportunity.
  • The Regional Data Center can set-up a rapid response team of student fellows in the spring of 2020 to provide on-demand technical assistance to people and organizations working on direct outreach efforts during crunch-time.

Now that I’m through with this much-needed brain dump, I’d be happy to talk with anyone (including our NNIP partners) about any of the ideas I laid out in this blog post. Please let me know if you’d like to connect. 

The Census Project is a great resource if you’d like to stay on top of the latest Census 2020 news. Many more links are also available on the NNIP Census 2020 webpage.