The Art of the Census

In a way, the U.S. Census Bureau picked a good year to go digital. Since 1790, when the federal government first started collecting national demographic data, the 2020 decennial count is the first where people can fill out their census questionnaire online.

With field offices closed and in-person canvassing stalled by coronavirus fears, the census data collection deadline has been delayed until October, and the bureau is working overtime to reach people without internet access — or a nearby open library — with mailers and phone calls. Meanwhile, community organizations are trying to rebuild trust among those deterred by the Trump administration’s unsuccessful attempt to add a question about citizenship on the form. Though 53.7% of the country has responded so far, large swaths of the uncounted remain. With deep economic uncertainty on the horizon, the stakes are especially high: Census counts help allocate political representation and $1.5 trillion in economic power; the numbers are used to justify funding things, or defunding them.

The census is supposed to give us a greater sense of what the country looks like: how many, how diverse, where. But the data it generates does not easily speak for itself — it needs to be interpreted.

From the bold statistical charts that highlighted the lives of black Americans by W.E.B. Dubois to the physical, anthropomorphic embodiment of New York City that becomes the protagonist in sci-fi author N.K. Jamison’s latest novel, breathing life into demographic data has long been the role of artists.

In the lead-up to this year’s count, two museums on opposite coasts mounted census-themed exhibitions: Come to Your Census: Who Counts in America? out of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; and Who We Are: Visualizing NYC by the Numbers, housed at New York City’s Museum of the City of New York. The featured artists were tasked with portraying what censuses past have illuminated about the U.S. population, what realities they’ve left out, and how much it matters to get a full picture of the country this time around.

“The real focus was that there’s actually beauty and pathos and even humor and whimsy to be found [in data],” said Sarah Henry, chief curator and deputy director of the Museum of the City of New York. “Depending on what people choose to do with this information, and how they apply their own filter and questions and intelligence and interpretation to these facts.”

“Conjugal condition of American Negroes according to age periods.” Prepared by Atlanta University students, collected by W. E. B. Du Bois, c. 1900. (Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

When museums across the country shut their doors, the curators in New York and San Francisco, too, had to translate their efforts online — meaning they now face the same challenges in engaging people across the digital divide. Both felt up to the task. Even before San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s shelter-in-place order, YBCA was thinking about how to include the city’s 20 hardest-to-count communities in a project like this, knowing that those who were already more fearful of public spaces might be even more reticent to visit museums during a global pandemic.

“We are possibly our most inventive as human beings when we are falling,” said Deborah Cullinan, YBCA’s CEO, quoting the dancer and performer Liz Lerman. “In such moments we are being very innovative in order to survive.”

Ahead of the museum’s temporary shuttering, artists Arleen Correa Valencia and Ana Teresa Fernández had been working on outfitting San Franciscans with neon sweatshirts that read, “We Are Not Invisible” and “Somos Visibles,” the words glowing in reflective, iron-on lettering. They’d planned to canvass the city, and display their wares at YBCA. Now, they’re doing video tutorials to help people sew and put together their own high-contrast clothes and masks.

Arleen Correa Valencia and Ana Teresa Fernández. (Courtesy YBCA)

The concept was born from Fernández’s frustration with artists who claimed to shine light on those “hiding in the shadows.”

“[T]here’s all these artists that are up and coming and establishing themselves around the migrant narrative — talking about migration, what it means to be undocumented, and what it means to be a minority and person of color. I was really inspired by all that, but at the same time, I felt like there was this need to speak for others,” Fernández said in an interview with Fiona Ball for YBCA. “[W]e are not invisible. We are not voiceless. We are not all these things that you keep perpetuating by telling our narrative, but we do have a voice. We are here. We are present, and we want to be heard. We just don’t have the right platforms to do it.” In a bright orange hoodie, people are putting the spotlight on themselves.

That tension is embodied in many of the pieces on display: Artists are simultaneously critiquing the methods of census data extraction and the biases baked into its questions, while stressing the importance of including oneself in the process.

In a series of portraits in YBCA’s exhibit, Cece Carpio represents some of the census’ most undercounted groups, like undocumented immigrants who fear that filling out the form will be grounds for deportation and incarcerated people who are counted not in their home communities but in the places where they’re living behind bars. The census does not ask about sexual orientation, but after years of LGBTQ activism, this year’s census gives residents the option to share if their household is comprised of a “same-sex couple.”

Many museums have embraced more interactive features in recent years, installing touch screens and buttons in rooms full of more traditional art. The coronavirus-inspired digital pivot means that those kinds of participatory experiences are actually easier to access. In “Breaking ICE: A Community Response to a Citizenship Test,” Lukas Brekke-Miesner, Yueqi Chen, Chris Hamamoto, and Takeshi Moro draft new philosophical prompts for YBCA that riff off the test all immigrants have to pass before being naturalized citizens; instead of asking civics questions like, “what is the ‘rule of law,’” they ask “Is it always better to have more choices?” and “What is the most important world event that happened in your lifetime?”

And in “A Counting,” a 2019 video by Ekene Ijeoma that’s been relaunched for MCNY’s audience, New Yorkers count to 100 in their native tongue. The languages are re-ordered by algorithm each time, selected in reverse frequency of how many residents are believed to speak them in the city. Calling a 917 number allows listeners to add their own voices to the chorus; so far, 75 of the 800 languages spoken in the city have found their speaker.

Despite operating in the sometimes-glitchy internet ether, both exhibits have deep roots in their respective hometowns. Yesica Prado’s Home Is Where Your Heart Is” photo series follows housing-insecure residents of the Bay Area who live in trailers and cars. Inside the pale wood frame of a leaning hut, Mark Baugh-Sasaki makes a model of the World War II-era Japanese internment camp where his father was held. (Online, it’s harder to make out the sand lining the floor of the barracks, or the way the light refracts through the beams, or how perilously the structure sinks into the ground beneath your feet.)

“The original vision was to reach people in their communities, through and with artists that are of their communities,” said Cullinan. That vision hasn’t been abandoned. The Art+Action coalition, of which YBCA is a lead partner, has plastered bus stations and city signs with advertisements urging people to participate in the count.

Art+Action’s “Come to Your Census”  public media campaign, mounted around San Francisco. (Courtesy YBCA)

MCNY’s exhibit offers odes to the topography of New York. Through maps, the city is redefined in turn by its immigration patterns (represented by the multiplying rings of an enormous technicolor tree trunk), and its languages (flattened by the census into imprecise categories like “African languages,” and visualized in blinding color.) Income disparities become structural, in a Herwig Scherabon map where towering bars of household affluence crowd each other out and wall each other off.

“Landscapes of Inequality.” Herwig Scherabon, 2019. (Courtesy Herwig Sherabon)

“This is the reason we set out to do this exhibition in the first place,” said Henry. “Getting them to feel not just fear about what could happen, but also some delight about what can be found out.”

The fear of not being counted is especially real in New York City, Henry says: Because of density and diversity and population churn, the boroughs have long been difficult to enumerate. “Every place has a lot at stake in the census, but the places that are hardest to count tend to be cities, and the places that are hardest to count are the ones that have so much risk,” said Henry.

New York is also the city being pummeled the hardest by the pandemic, its pain generating new data points: coronavirus infection counts, hospitalization counts, and death counts. Grim  patterns of demography and geography are emerging. Black and Latino New Yorkers are dying at higher rates; the impoverished Bronx has the most cases relative to its population. The work of interpreting those numbers, and giving them faces, is only beginning.

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The Census Bureau Wasn’t Counting on the Coronavirus

Up on the 18th floor of a federal building in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, the census takers are getting ready. On the phone, a receptionist recites a job description to what could be a potential new recruit in Spanish and English. Administrators prepare the postcards that will soon be mailed to every household in the city, asking people to respond to the 2020 census questionnaire online or by mail.

For now, much of the work is happening behind closed doors. But starting on March 30, enumerators will fan out to count the city’s homeless population. And after the nationwide census kickoff in April, these enumerators will start knocking on the doors of households that didn’t respond to their postcards, beginning in May.

Census takers play a critical role in maintaining the health of American democracy. Door-to-door census count operations, however, could run afoul of a different imperative: keeping away from the novel coronavirus.

As more cases of COVID-19 are reported in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection has recommended that people who may have been exposed to the virus think hard about limiting their interactions with other people, by staying home from work, canceling travel plans and steering clear of public transit. But when the job is counting people — or galvanizing them to fill out forms — avoiding contact with the public isn’t always an option.

The Census Bureau has issued an assurance that they’re working with health authorities at the federal, state and local level to prepare for the spread of disease. “Operations for the 2020 Census and our ongoing household surveys have procedures built in that specifically anticipate epidemics and pandemics, and we will continue to work with the relevant authorities to keep those up to date,” said Steven Dillingham, the bureau’s director, in a statement.

On the West Coast, there is reason to act urgently. In Washington state, nine people have died so far due to the virus. There are more than 40 reported cases in California, including eleven in Santa Clara county and one in Alameda County. San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency on February 25, saying “we need to allocate more resources to make sure we are prepared.”

Seattle, which was home to the first U.S. death from the coronavirus, hasn’t been given official instructions from the Census Bureau related to the coronavirus, says Kelsey Nyland, a communications associate for the mayor’s office. “Since we haven’t received any guidance from the bureau or CDC on how COVID could — if at all — affect census outreach, we’re just going to continue to do the work we’re doing,” she said.

In the San Francisco census office, workers were taking their own precautions. A census employee (who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media) gestured at some hand sanitizer when asked about whether the bureau had provided information or instructions about how the coronavirus could affect canvassing efforts. In an email seen by CityLab, Los Angeles Regional Census Center deputy regional director Thomas Szabla sent California census officers two CDC pamphlets with details on COVID-19 and how to stem the spread of infection. The same fliers are posted in the elevators of the federal building where the San Francisco census office is located.

“We are beginning to provide some basic information on the Coronavirus and other related health information,” Szabla wrote in the email. “I know a lot of people are starting to get nervous about this, but we need everyone to stay levelheaded about this and do our best to practice good sanitary habits.” The Census Bureau did not respond to follow-up questions from CityLab about virus preparation efforts.

Could pandemic anxiety disrupt the 2020 census, which decides the apportionment of seats in Congress and guides the distribution of more than $675 billion in federal funds? In the short term, it could certainly complicate the U.S. Census Bureau’s recruitment efforts, says William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Already, the low unemployment rate has made hiring enumerators harder. “They might have to take some extra measures to make sure that the census takers feel they’re safe,” he said.

The risk that the virus represents to the 2020 survey extends beyond these door-to-door follow-up counts, however. A successful census relies on the efforts of community associations, faith-based organizations, and other groups to muster a complete count. In Seattle, for example, this work involves extensive community outreach at parks and libraries as well as partnerships with local ethnic newspapers and other organizations. “We’ve already done the groundwork to make sure people have the info that they need,” Nyland said.

Thousands of complete-count committees across the country are already at work to bolster the count. Some of these committees serve very specific, localized, hard-to-count communities, whom the census might not otherwise reach. A pandemic might elevate that risk of being missed. In New York, where authorities announced a second confirmed coronavirus case on Tuesday morning, a group called LatinoJustice canceled a census rollout event scheduled for this week, according to The City.

States with large proportions of hard-to-count populations — racial and ethnic minorities, low-income families, respondents with low education levels, and other sociodemographic groups — are already facing an almost-certain undercount. According to projections from the Urban Institute, California, New York, and Texas face significant undercounts even in a best-case scenario. In the highest-risk scenario, every state would suffer an undercount except Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. And that Urban Institute projection didn’t take into account a global pandemic the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in a century.

That last pandemic was the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 to 1920, which managed to wreak havoc on the 1920 census. A post-hoc report conducted by the director of the census noted that the full count was delayed by about five months, and some areas had to be canvassed again. The war in Europe and Spanish flu at home contributed to a series of nationalist laws restricting immigration; the 1920 census report casts these factors as responsible for the lowest rate of population growth in the nation’s history.

A lot has changed in the past 100 years, and the census has evolved accordingly: 2020 marks the first year that the Census Bureau is enabling people to respond to the questionnaire online. While the internet could be a liability when it comes to access or trust in the census (especially among hard-to-count communities), a digital census is nevertheless something people can complete even if the coronavirus outbreak grows much worse.

“It’s fortunate this time in that the census is counting on a lot of people to give their responses on the internet, which of course doesn’t involve a face-to-face interaction with a census taker,” said Frey. “They’ve tried very hard to make sure the internet system is pervasive, and that it works.”

For example, starting March 12, Seattle-area libraries will have computers available to all to fill out their census forms, regardless of whether they have a library card, says Nyland.

“If a public health crisis alters the bureau’s plans for the census, it could make it even harder to count some communities,” said Beth Lynk, the campaign director of Census Counts, a group housed under the Leadership Conference Education Fund that is working with organizations to help conduct a fair and accurate census. “We are already working with our partners to fight against xenophobia affecting hard-to-reach communities and, in the event of a public health crisis, are poised to strategically redirect resources and alter our outreach plans.”

A pandemic is just one of multiple menaces that census-watchers are tracking. The U.S. Supreme Court decided last summer that the census won’t include the question about citizenship that the Trump Administration was determined to insert, but experts fear that the damage to the count’s reputation with mixed-status or undocumented households was already done.

Already, scammers and other opportunists — including the GOP — are using fake mailers and phishing attacks to try to pry sensitive data or campaign contributions from unwary respondents. Misinformation about the coronavirus could also hurt the census, even if the outbreak is less severe than anticipated. With both the census and the pandemic response, the time to prepare for the worst-case scenario is before the crisis begins.

Local leaders who have the most to lose from a bungled census have been planning for the upcoming count for years. The 2020 census faces especially difficult odds. In addition to the usual funding shortfalls, this survey has weathered an unprecedented attempt to weaponize the count politically, and it still remains to be seen how the mostly untested technology will fare. Some census takers are already reporting frustrations using the Census Bureau’s new smartphone app in the field.

“Obviously, the operational phase of the census is a time when you want everything to go right, and this wild card is going to threaten that,” said Margo Anderson, professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of The American Census: A Social History. But the census always has to contend with plagues and perils, both natural and manmade: Just this week, tornadoes ripped through Tennessee, destroying dozens of homes that will need to be accounted for somehow this spring. They’ll adjust, she trusts — they always do.

“If you look at any news story in any decade, there are always stories of census offices that burn down. I think the 1850 census schedules from California were lost at sea,” she said. “The Census Bureau right now is likely working on this as we speak. They always have fallback positions.”

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New York City’s Campaign to ‘Get Out the Count’ for the 2020 Census

If you live in New York City, or any city for that matter, how willing are you to open your door to a stranger and answer questions about your living situation and background? How confident would you be giving that stranger answers about how many people live in the apartment next door, how old they are, or what their race is?

This is what happens when people don’t fill out the U.S. decennial census—the enumerators come a-knockin’. If nobody’s home, the enumerator can ask someone in the hallway or the elevator if they have any information on their neighbors, a process that the United States Census Bureau calls collecting proxy data. The Bureau can also make guesses about the occupancy of certain homes by looking at neighborhood statistical data. But the most accurate response comes from the residents, according to representatives from the New York City 2020 census team. In 2010, the self-response rate of New York City residents was 61.9 percent, compared to the national average of 76 percent.

While the Bureau uses other methods to obtain demographic data about residents who don’t respond to the original questionnaire, past censuses have resulted in the undercounting of many communities and groups—often minorities, foreign-born residents, renters, the homeless, low-income individuals, and children under five according to the Census Bureau’s research. So, New York City has decided to take action in time for the 2020 Census.

In January 2019, the city of New York greenlit a $40 million, multi-pronged approach to attempt as accurate a count as possible for the 2020 Census. The plan is to recruit 2,500 volunteers to serve as “census ambassadors.” So far, more than 1,500 volunteers have been recruited to engage in local census-related outreach, and in December, the Complete Count Fund, a joint project of NYC Census 2020, the New York City Council, and the City University of New York, announced the names of 150 community-based organizations in New York that will receive funding to help “get out the count.”

This level of effort is new for New York City, according to Amit S. Bagga, deputy director of the NYC Census 2020 team. “Here in New York in 2010, there were no public investments made around organizing for the census or ensuring that New Yorkers were participating,” Bagga said. “Private philanthropy did make some investments at the time but the city of New York had no such campaign.”

Only 45 percent of people know that census data helps guide federal funding for elements of public life including public hospitals, education, and transportation, according to a Census Bureau survey. That’s due in part to poor messaging and education surrounding past censuses, says Bagga. “An effort like this to raise critical awareness around a census has never been undertaken before by any city that we are aware of. It’s critical that we show up in a complete way in the census so we get our fair share of $650 billion in federal funding. This is the banner civil rights issue of our time.”

The decennial census is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years to get an accurate count of the entire population and where each person lives. In March of 2020, the Bureau will attempt to send every household in the country an invitation to participate in the 2020 Census, a 10-question survey, available in 13 languages. For the first time since the census began in 1790, residents will have the option of filling out the form online.

“Historically, there has been no conversation that focused on the tremendous amount of funding that has been unlocked for communities, such as Title I funding or job training for people in low-income neighborhoods, or healthcare funding for New Yorkers, in particular the Children’s Health Insurance Program,” said Bagga. “These are programs that really support the lives of everyday New Yorkers.”

And the strength of New York’s voice in Washington is on the line. As census data affects the number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives, it’s possible New York could lose up to two congressional seats following the 2020 Census, based on the projected undercount. According to a January Census Bureau report, New York City’s response rate is projected to be 58 percent, a participation rate even lower than it was 10 years ago. The report cites a variety of reasons for the anticipated low response, namely distrust of the government plus data and privacy concerns.

And perhaps most crucially for New York, when the Trump administration announced a desire to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census in 2018, many foreign-born residents were spooked. The question was not added, and even if it had been, census answers are protected by the stringent privacy laws of Title 13 of the U.S. Code. But the fear and distrust had been sown. Bagga believes this was the intent: “The attempt to add that question was driven entirely by a desire to create mass panic and confusion so that places with large immigrant populations—which, by the way, also happen to vote in large numbers for Democratic parties—wouldn’t participate,” he said. “The administration has a constitutional obligation to count us, and they were attempting to utilize it as a tool to harm us.”

Trump administration machinations aside, New York has traditionally been a notoriously difficult city to count. Most residents live in apartment buildings, the addresses of which are challenging to keep up with due to building plan discrepancies and the reshaping of housing units. The Department of City Planning has been attempting to address this issue by documenting and submitting close to 400,000 addresses to the Census Bureau. Another barrier to an accurate count is the fact that more than 40 percent of the city’s residents are foreign-born, thus language access and proficiency can be a problem.

The 150 organizations the Complete Count Fund awarded funding to in December are either 501(c)(3) nonprofits or sponsored by nonprofits, and serve 245 neighborhoods across the five boroughs, and in 80 languages. In hopes of increasing the self-response rate, the Fund, which was granted $19 million of the city’s $40 million allocation, aims to arm the recipients with the tools they need to help raise awareness about the census, fight the spread of misinformation, and bridge the digital divide for New Yorkers in historically undercounted areas.

“We know the necessity of affordable housing and school programs to the people we serve,” said Iris Cabrera, assistant director of community engagement at one of the recipients of Complete Count funding, the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families (CHCF), which serves Latino communities in the South Bronx and Brooklyn. “It’s so important for us to make sure everyone in our community gets counted so that we get the funding we need every year.”

Even though CHCF has not yet received its grant, it is already in the process of conducting workshops and one-on-one meetings at the schools it works with in order to inform people that their information will be safe when they complete the census.

“Everything they’ve been doing in the White House is to make sure immigrants feel afraid and don’t complete the census because they don’t want New York City to receive funding,” Cabrera said. “A lot of the people we serve are immigrants, and they’re afraid to give their information because ICE is all over the areas we normally work. It’s important not only for us but for other nonprofits to get this funding because we know the community, and people know us, and they feel comfortable with us.”

In addition to the Complete Count Fund, some of the city’s $40 million allocation will go to providing training for field trainers, and to marketing that will be delivered in many languages and through a range of media, including the obvious public transit and street ads, but also ads in as many local and foreign-language newspapers and radio stations as it can find.

“Our goal is to activate all of these initiatives in a complete way in order to successfully reach all New Yorkers,” said Bagga. “It underscores how much we believe that every New Yorker has the right to be counted.”

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Strength In Numbers: The Importance of the 2020 Census

During the time between the 1990 and 2000 census, my family, like many other Caribbean families, moved to Jamaica, Queens and purchased a home in pursuit of our version of the American Dream. However, despite the arrival of many new families, resources and transportation access for my growing community didn’t come immediately to the area.

As such, the trip from my home in Jamaica, Queens to downtown Manhattan was over two hours. Even then, bus times were scattered and infrequent, and service was unreliable; it wasn’t unusual for a bus to simply not show up. We often resorted to taking “gypsy cabs” (unlicensed taxis) to connect us with other modes of transportation into Manhattan. As far as the city was concerned, our community was still invisible because we had not been counted.

As far as the city was concerned, our community was still invisible because we had not been counted.

When I returned to New York after college, following the 2000 census, I slowly began to notice the appearance of new bus routes, buses and transit resources in my neighborhood. It wasn’t until later in my career as an urban planner that I understood how those new buses and my newly shortened commute into lower Manhattan were a direct result of information coming in from the 2000 census. The increased transit access positioned me to take the risk of accepting a job in Manhattan, knowing that I now had a shorter and, importantly, more reliable commute.

My experience highlights just one of the many ways the census impacts our ability to effectively participate in our society. The census directs the flow of resources, can strengthen or erode our relative political power, and helps shape the reality of the places in which we live.

My personal story and career choices have taught me the power that the census holds. However, we can’t assume all of us living in America share that understanding. As we all well know, communities of color statistically remain the most disenfranchised population in this country. And there is, understandably, more anxiety than ever about this census. Many questions arise: Why does the government need information about our race and gender? What will the government do with this information? Can this information be used against me?

Only once every ten years do we have an opportunity like this one, to shift and lock in political power and representation for the next decade.

It’s critical that our communities know the facts about the upcoming census, and the power it can hold for our everyday lives. Especially in these racialized and trying times, it is more important now than ever to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard, and that resources are rightfully and appropriately allocated to communities.

Census data informs the number of congressional districts that each state is allocated. Shifts in congressional districts set the foundation for the larger framework of how congressional power and representation is allocated. Periods of intense gerrymandering—the manipulation of district boundaries to maintain political advantage for one party—heightens the stakes of this process, because census data is relied on to draw and redraw districts. Only once every ten years do we have an opportunity like this one, to shift and lock in political power and representation for the next decade.

In addition to determining political representation, census data also drives how state and federal dollars will be allocated, where businesses will open new stores, and a host of other assets and resources in a community. An accurate count ensures that there is equity in the redistribution.

We know too well what lack of resourcing can do to community. We also know that communities of color are the most distressed population in this country, due to prejudice and structural racism. The legacies of redlining and other discriminatory public and private sector practices mean that historically, Black people in particular, but all communities of color, have often lived in neighborhoods with inadequate funding for basic needs like access to healthy food, healthcare, education, etc. And due in large part to such geographic isolation, poverty, and understandable fear and mistrust of government, these are the same communities that have historically been at risk of being undercounted. We cannot provide the government any more opportunities to discount or forget our communities.

A recent study by the Urban Institute estimates that the upcoming Census is likely to be the least accurate since 1990, and that among the people most likely overlooked are an estimated 1.7 million kids younger than five. The report asserts that “Black and Hispanic/Latinx-identified individuals in the high-risk scenario could be undercounted nationally by 3.68 percent and 3.57 percent, respectively.” What will that inaccuracy mean for those undercounted children when they enter the education system and beyond?

Community organizing and development is crucial in this moment. We have an opportunity now to mobilize to bring resources and attention into our communities. This mobilization could set the foundation for community engagement processes over the next decade, because the relationships, infrastructure and networks created to organize around the census can be used as assets for better community engagement practices in the future.

We have an opportunity now to mobilize to bring resources and attention into our communities.

The recent debate around whether to include a question about peoples’ citizenship in the census has shaken many, primarily our Latinx and immigrant community. Debunking the valid fears that many hold around this question is essential. We can each support this by sharing trusted information, and ensuring that your community is aware that personal information collected by the Census Bureau is federally protected by law and will not be shared with other government agencies.

Here are some resources to share:

It’s important to relay to these communities the power our census holds and how it will translate in their day-to-day lives. The data collected through the census bring visibility to communities. The census provides data and stories to back up how communities evolve, and inevitably aids in shaping the narrative of who communities are and who they are made up of. When entire communities are underrepresented, they do not receive their rightful political voice or fair share of funding. An accurate census is critical for making sure that these demographic shifts can translate into equitable transitions of political power.

Additional insights, support and input from Joanna Carrasco, Coordinator at Living Cities.

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MapLab: Census, Sense Us

Welcome to the latest edition of MapLab. Sign up to receive this newsletter in your inbox here.


Every ten years, the U.S. government is supposed to count every living person in the country, then use that tally to establish fair representation in Congress and fairly disburse funding. This mandate to use empirical science to empower the people was set forth by the Constitution and first accomplished in 1790. It has been carried out every decade since.

But the 2020 Census marks several changes in the undertaking of this decadal democratic reset, sowing fears of an undercount. First, there is the distrust and confusion created by the Trump administration’s attempt to ask respondents about their immigration status. Although that move was ultimately blocked from the 2020 questionnaire by the Supreme Court, the threat of a probe could still keep immigrant communities from participating.

Then there is this sea change: For the first time in history, people will able to fill out the questionnaires online. While that could create a more convenient experience for many respondents and Census employees, it also presents a host of risks and challenges, from cyberattacks and scam artists to technical glitches and gaps in broadband access.

Share of households in New York City without broadband internet access. This map strictly shows households that lack at-home broadband, so it excludes households with cellular data plans for phones or tablets. (NYC Office of the Comptroller)

This week in CityLab, Kriston Capps reports on those many potential pitfalls and what communities are doing to avoid them (let’s hear it for libraries!):

[O]utreach is an enormous obstacle for the 2020 census, thanks to the deep divides in the ways that American reach and use the internet. In New York City, for example, more than 917,000 households lack access to broadband at home—29 percent of the city, per a July report on the census from the Office of the New York City Comptroller. This digital divide tracks neatly with existing borders that define marginalized populations, including race, class, and ethnicity.

[…] Public libraries are likely to be the front line in census outreach: That’s where many people who don’t have home access to the internet go to get online… In fact, librarians are already doing some heavy lifting for the 2020 count: They’re helping library users apply for and train for jobs with the Census Bureau, processes that have migrated online with this census.

The stakes of an undercount go far beyond a bureaucratic mess. It could result in underrepresentation in Congress for certain communities, or an under-delivery of critical funds. Read Capps’ full story here, and pair it with his earlier report about the communities that a shoddy Census could hurt (and help) the most.  


What vintage flight maps say about globalization

In so many ways, the 21st century experience of commercial air travel is a sad shadow of its glamorous past, from passenger attire, to in-flight food selection, to the airline route maps stuck in seat-back pockets. Once, air carriers treated those maps as alluring advertisements for the possibilities of world travel, as much as practical infographics. Last month, the authors of a new book about the history of these images, Airline Maps: A Century of Art and Design, chatted with Benjamin Schneider for CityLab about what those maps reveal about the early days of our hyper-connected planet.

An abstract, watercolor-like 1960 Delta map boasts of the airline’s “big jets.” (Courtesy of Delta Flight Museum, Atlanta)

“There’s a wonderful American Airlines map with the signs of the zodiac going across the routes,” one author, Maxwell Roberts, told Schneider. “Air travel was completely new, so they were sort of looking for imagery showing how the world was being joined up, and they went for this old-fashioned cartographic imagery as a way to show that.”

Read the full story, and read this 2018 post by contemporary mapmaker Daniel P. Huffman about tackling the job of creating a new route map for an airline client. “Major airlines have a lot of connections, and drawing each possible route can lead to a tangled mass of impossible-to-follow lines,” he writes.


Mappy links

(Charles Booth Archive, courtesy of London School of Economics)

A new anthology takes a fresh look at Charles Booth’s 19th century maps of London poverty. (CityLab) ♦ Infrared mapping technology is helping California firefighters keep wildfires under control. (Wall Street Journal) ♦ And a flying hexagon is helping California researchers track underground water supplies. (San Luis Obispo Tribune) ♦ A “Beltway” map helped a newcomer navigate Pittsburgh’s formidable street grid. (CityLab) ♦ You knew this was coming: “The Creators Of Pokémon Go Mapped The World. Now They’re Mapping You.” (Kotaku)


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Song to get lost to:

Maybe he’s caught in the legend / Maybe he’s caught in the mood
Maybe these maps and legends / Have been misunderstood

Over and out,

Laura Bliss

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The Sum of All 2020 Census Fears

With the next census, for the first time ever, respondents will be able to fill out their questionnaires online. This marks a major transition for the count, which guides the apportionment of seats in Congress and the disbursement of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds. Giving Americans the option to fill out the 2020 census by laptop or smartphone means dragging Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution into the 21st century. For better or for worse.

Worries over the looming census run beyond the typical concerns about underfunding and understaffing (although those are fraying nerves this time around also). Putting the census online opens a Pandora’s box of new risks, including meddling from hackers and scammers, and there’s evidence that vultures are already circling. While the first-ever online census introduces challenges for consumer protection and data security, the greatest threat to the census itself may be inequality—specifically, the digital divide.

“Asking people to fill out a form on their phone is quite different and complicated from asking people to use a social media app,” says Greta Byrum, co-director of the Digital Equity Laboratory at the New School.

Beware the census scams

First, the good news: An overwhelming majority of adults in America know about the census and plan to participate. The brand is strong, according to the Pew Research Center, despite the Trump administration’s failed effort to pin a divisive citizenship question onto the questionnaire. Yet its (quite literal) household-name status also makes it a high-value target for players intent on misleading people.

For example, in October, the Republican National Committee issued a mailer in Bozeman and other areas in Montana that represented itself as a “2019 congressional district census.” The document was really a disguised solicitation for President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, leading officials in Montana to condemn the “imitation census” as misinformation.

Other census-lookalike forms are designed to lure people to sites where they might be asked for identifying personal information or financial records (even though the census doesn’t ask for these details). “We’ve already seen cases of fake mailers, where they ask people to go to some random URL,” Byrum says. She gives an example of a library patron in Canandaigua, New York, who brought a mimic mailer in to the local library to ask whether it was an official census form.

When the official 2020 census launches next April, the mailers that come to households will direct respondents to a web address and provide them with a unique identifying code. That opens a window for fraud: Bad actors might design convincing spoof sites that look like an official census portal, or they might zero in on (say) a wifi network created for census response by a neighborhood complete count committee. All the usual malware maladies that plague email could be tried against the census, and the same people who are vulnerable to those attacks—older people and those less familiar with online interactions—may be victimized. Other scammers pretend to be Census Bureau staffers and use analog methods of deceit to lure victims into handing over Social Security numbers and other identifying personal information over the phone or at the door. Organizations like AARP have been warning members how to better identify census fraud threats and imposters.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 data collection push itself could also be a target. When Australia launched its first online census in 2016, it was subject to a distributed denial of service attack that crashed the site, forcing authorities to take it down. Security experts have warned the Bureau that census data will be vulnerable both during transmission and at rest. Earlier this year, officials from the Government Accountability Office testified before the House that the Census Bureau had flagged more than 500 corrective actions to be taken during a cybersecurity risk assessment, nearly half of which were deemed high risk.

“The Census Bureau has been extremely guarded about how they’re building these systems,” Byrum says. “There was a long delay on procurement of these contracts because of the [federal government] shutdown [in 2018–19]. The Census Bureau is really far behind on building the IT systems.”

Delays, budget uncertainties, and lapses in leadership have loomed over the census. While three full trials were planned to test all 50-odd new IT systems for the 2020 Census, the bureau scaled back its preparations to a single dress rehearsal in Rhode Island’s Providence County due to funding shortfalls. “When we went into the end-to-end pilot in Rhode Island in 2018, several of the systems were not completed yet. We haven’t seen them. They haven’t been tested in the field. They’re not going to be tested.”

New technology, and stubborn gaps

Even the system for ensuring that the census reaches hard-to-count households is brand new. For the 2010 census, the bureau hired about 160,000 temporary workers known as “listers” to canvas nearly every block in the nation and generate the agency’s master address file (part of a much larger temporary workforce). As a cost-saving mechanism, the Census Bureau scaled back the door-to-door canvassing operation for 2020. The agency is splitting this task into “in-field” and “in-office” efforts. The latter involves sophisticated data analysis techniques, including machine learning and satellite imaging, to generate a profile for places that have added addresses.

As a result, the Census Bureau is only physically canvassing a quarter of the blocks that the agency covered for the last census. During the single (and only) end-to-end trial conducted of the census, the in-office (digital) canvassing results differed from the in-field (analog) canvassing results for 61 percent of the blocks tested, according to a final internal report on the trial.

“If there’s an over-representation of folks who have internet at home, we don’t know that the nonresponse follow-up systems as it exists is going to be able to identify who has not been counted,” Byrum says. “We’re not sure there’s any corrective mechanism to identify or measure an undercount.”

There won’t be another dress rehearsal before Census Day (April 1, 2020). The 2018 practice run in Providence County did not exactly inspire confidence, according to James Diossa, the mayor of Central Falls, Rhode Island. Outreach was nonexistent. Worse still, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced the citizenship question in March 2018, midway through the test, adding to the confusion. “There was no information, no advertising, no discussions happening from the Census Bureau around this test trial run,” Diossa told CityLab earlier this year.

Yet outreach is an enormous obstacle for the 2020 census, thanks to the deep divides in the ways that American reach and use the internet. In New York City, for example, more than 917,000 households lack access to broadband at home—29 percent of the city, per a July report on the census from the Office of the New York City Comptroller. This digital divide tracks neatly with existing borders that define marginalized populations, including race, class, and ethnicity. Nearly half of the homes in Borough Park, Kensington, and Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn lack broadband access at home, while on the Upper East Side that figure is just 15 percent.

Share of households in New York City without broadband internet access. This map strictly shows households that lack at-home broadband, so it excludes households with cellular data plans for phones or tablets. (NYC Office of the Comptroller)

Broadband access isn’t the only measure of the digital divide. Sticking with New York, about 38 percent of households without internet access at home pay for data on a mobile device. Smartphones may be ubiquitous among communities of color, particularly in low-income communities, but that isn’t a closing of the digital divide, says Maya Wiley, professor at the New School and founder and co-director of the Digital Equity Laboratory. “Try doing your homework on a mobile phone,” she says.

Counting on trust

Black and Hispanic adults, who are more likely to have unreliable access to the internet in the first place, also harbor greater doubts about the census, according to the research from Pew. And no wonder: The Trump administration took great pains to introduce a citizenship question as a way to give an edge to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites. While the effort to add the citizenship question failed, the distrust lingers, and putting the census online raises a whole new category of objection.

“Folks would rather not transmit their data through systems that they neither understand nor trust,” says Melva M. Miller, executive vice president for the Association for a Better New York, a nonprofit that has identified 2020 census outreach as a priority.

Maximizing New York City’s self-response rate is one of her association’s goals going into a census that could see the state as a whole lose billions of dollars in federal funds as well as one or more seats in Congress. Developing messaging to reach hard-to-count communities means coming up with the strategy that’s most likely to reach a trusted figure within a particular demographic, whether that’s a maternal head-of-household, religious leader, or social media platform. And the answer changes wherever you go.

“I was in a conference and sitting on a panel with a woman who is organizing in the state of Arkansas, and she mentioned that there’s been some hesitation among the minority community specifically in Arkansas around filling out the form online. Their preference was to complete the form over the phone,” Miller says. “In our focus groups [in New York], we saw the absolute opposite. Filling out the census over the phone was the least favorite option, even after enumerators knocking on individual doors.”

Public libraries are likely to be the front line in census outreach: That’s where many people who don’t have home access to the internet go to get online. And as trusted arbiters of information across many different communities, librarians have been preparing for the 2020 census for at least two years, according to Larra Clark, deputy director for policy at the Public Library Association (part of the American Library Association). In fact, librarians are already doing some heavy lifting for the 2020 count: They’re helping library users apply for and train for jobs with the Census Bureau, processes that have migrated online with this census.

“Every time we see a government activity move online, whether it’s only online or partly online, every single time we see an impact on our public libraries,” Clark says. “So much about the census is about what public libraries do every day ensuring people have a safe and effective online experience.”

Librarians, faith leaders, and other standard bearers have their work cut out for them. For the 2020 census to succeed, they’ll have to help communities across the country bridge the gulfs of digital illiteracy and lack of accessibility. Success assumes that the government’s untested census technologies hold up to attacks from pirates, hackers, and foreign governments. And if everything works—well, we’ll never know, really. The Census Bureau isn’t conducting a control trial to see how the online census measures up to past efforts.

“If we have a census where a large percentage of the population don’t have faith in the results,”Byrum says, “then we’re in a very poor position when it comes to how we make those decisions or how we litigate going forward regarding these very important issues.”

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Ex-Census Director: Citizenship Question Is ‘a Tremendous Risk’

Next month marks the first test of the Census Bureau under the Trump administration. By the end of March, the bureau has to submit its formal list of questions for the 2020 Census to Congress. There’s one item in particular that’s drawing much attention: In December, the Department of Justice requested the addition of a controversial citizenship question.

The DOJ explained that, in order to fully enforce the Voting Rights Act, “the Department needs a reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting rights violations are alleged or suspected.”

That request alarmed many census-watchers, who were already anxious about the fate of the big decennial count under the Trump administration. Currently, the Census Bureau has neither a director nor a deputy director in place; last fall, the White House floated a name for deputy, who would not require Senate confirmation (but would serve as acting director). That candidate withdrew from consideration last month following criticism of his lack of administrative experience and somewhat provocative views on democracy.  

Speaking with CityLab after he gave remarks at an event on Tuesday morning, the bureau’s former director, John Thompson, explained why he agreed that the citizenship question would risk undermining the count.

“There are great risks that including that question, particularly in the atmosphere that we’re in today, will result in an undercount, not just of non-citizen populations but other populations that are concerned with what could happen to them,” Thompson said. “That is a tremendous risk.”

Thompson, who left the bureau last May, says that the 2020 Census faces two significant threats, both of which may come to a head next month. The first is the citizenship question, which has drawn widespread condemnation from leaders. In January, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 170 other organizations sent a letter to Wilbur Ross, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce (which runs the bureau), urging him to reject the DOJ’s request. More than 160 mayors sent him a similar notice earlier this month.

“The concern is it will cause great fear among certain populations that this data will be used for inappropriate purposes,” Thompson said. “The Census [Bureau] has a really, really hard job to convince everyone of two things. One is why it’s important to be counted. The other message that is really, really critical is that the census is confidential. The Census [Bureau] doesn’t give the data to anyone.”

In addition to the citizenship question, which has not been tested in a census environment since 1950, underfunding could also lead to drastic undercounting among certain populations—namely minorities, vulnerable families, and at-risk communities. These counts are critical for deciding representation in Congress and funding levels for law enforcement and public education, among other things.

Thompson now serves as the executive director of the Council of Professional Organizations on Federal Statistics, a nonprofit devoted to preserving and expanding the use of data by federal statistical collections. He was appearing at an event in Washington, D.C., assembled by the Center for Data Innovation, where he spoke about the bureau’s push for automation and priorities under the federal budget. He hammered the DOJ’s effort to add a citizenship question so late in the process, noting that the American Community Survey has historically served as the federal source for information on citizenship. “It apparently, until recently, has been adequate,” he said.

Thompson added, “Putting that [citizenship] question on the decennial census has the risk of raising fears among certain populations that it would be very hard for the Census Bureau to countermand.”

Any inaccuracies in the 2020 Census will have long-lasting and wide-ranging effects, as it would carry over into other surveys performed by the Census Bureau, including the American Population Survey, the Current Population Survey, and the National Health Interview Survey. “If there is inaccuracy in the decennial census, that will be with us for 10 years,” Thompson said.

Will the bureau submit to the DOJ request? Thompson wouldn’t speculate on whether he thinks his old colleagues will add the citizenship item to the questionnaire it submits to Congress next month. But even if they do, there’s an additional level of official oversight that gives him hope: Article 1, section 2 of the Constitution. It says that “the actual Enumeration” is the responsibility of Congress, to be executed “in such as they shall by Law direct.”

What that means is that, should the Census Bureau add the new question, “Congress doesn’t have to accept it,” Thompson said. “I think it was smart of the people who wrote [the Constitution] to include that.”

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