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Groves: What's In Store for Census 2010

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On a morning full of big political news -- the apparent death of the health reform bill, a Supreme Court decision ending restrictions on corporate campaign spending and John Edwards admission that he fathered an out of wedlock child -- I spent the morning attending a briefing something even more exciting: What's in store for execution of the 2010 Census.

OK, maybe not that exciting, but the session sponsored by the DC chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and the Pew Research Center did provide a fascinating glimpse at one of the government's decennial effort to count and gather demographic data on its citizenry.

While newly installed Census Director Robert Groves did not break any news with his brief presentation, he conveyed a sense of the "massive undertaking" involved in executing the Census and passed along some information that would interest pollsters and data geeks:

  • In March the Census will mail a census form to every residence in the United States, a procedure used by the Census since 1960.
  • To improve the rate of response to the initial mailing, the Census will run a paid advertising campaign as it did 10 years ago. Groves added this statistic: "For every one percentage point that we raise the mail response rate through this advertising campaign, we will reduce the total cost to the Census by about $85 million," costs that they incur by sending follow-up mailings and in-person enumerators to gain full response (a video of highlights from the launch of the ad campaign is posted here).
  • The Census is currently conducting a daily telephone tracking survey to monitor what Groves described as "key predictors" from prior research of what predicts likelihood of participating in the 2010 Census. They then run "predictive models" and "watch how the predictors are changing" overall and within key subgroups and, if necessary, tweak their advertising buy or messages appropriately Groves showed a tracking chart indicating that awareness started to climb following the New York City roll-out of the Census "Road Tour" (seen in the video below).  
  • As also indicated in the survey released by the Pew Research Center yesterday, younger Americans -- those between 18 and 29 years of age -- are the "laggard group" in terms of reported awareness and intent to participate. Groves, the noted expert on response rates in surveys, voiced a caution we rarely hear about telephone surveys: These data on younger Americans "are subject to great misinterpretation" since they are from the respondents of a random digit dial (RDD) telephone survey. "The proportion of all people sampled that became respondents is much, much, much, much, much, much lower than we'll ever get in the census, so these [younger respondents] are the cream of the crop" in terms of their willingness to participate in a survey, and thus perhaps, in the census itself. "The usefulness of this [survey]," he added, "is to watch this over time, to see if things are moving."
  • Starting at the end of March, the Census will launch a tool on its web site that will allow anyone to monitor real time updates of the participation rate, featuring a thematic "heat map" that will display regional variation. You will also be able to "drill down" to see similar mapping for individual counties or zip codes, or create on screen comparisons between localities so "New York could compete with L.A." (or perhaps Washington DC with Dallas?).
  • The Census is also undertaking a Census in the Schools initiative with the assistance of Sesame Street characters Rosita and Count von Count, who Groves describes wryly as his "senior technical adviser."

Not surprisingly, Groves now has a blog on the Census 2010 website.