Census director: 2020 count will be test of technology, public trust | TribLIVE.com

Census director: 2020 count will be test of technology, public trust

Tom Davidson
Fernando E. Armstrong, regional director of the U.S. Census Bureau, speaks Friday at the new office in Cranberry.

There’s more riding on the 2020 census than a national head count.

Beyond the population numbers, demographic information and statistics the census will sort out, the process the U.S. Census Bureau will use will test the reliability of smartphone technology.

“There are some concerns,” said Fernando E. Armstrong, regional director of the Census Bureau.

Armstrong is based in Philadelphia and leads the area that’s covered by the bureau’s office in Cranberry, which opened Friday.

The office will administer a vast area that goes from Susquehanna County to Cleveland, Ohio.

It’s a nondescript suite in an office park. The American flag next to the door is the only clue it’s affiliated with the government, and the desks were bare Friday.

In the near future, it will be bustling with activity as the Census brain trust for the region and will ultimately oversee 57,000 people who will work to complete the 2020 census.

“I think that 2020 will be a very special census in many, many ways,” Armstrong said. “We are going to leverage technology to a level that we have never done before. We hope it will work.”

Census takers will be exclusively hired online and will use smartphones to do their work.

They’ll be doing so at a time when digital security is a concern for many people and they’re skeptical of institutions, including the government, and how these groups handle personal information, Armstrong said.

Because of that, the Census Bureau needs to be able to guarantee the information they gather is secure, and they’ve invested a lot of resources to do so.

“Every test we have gotten seems to say it will work,” Armstrong said.

The 2020 Census at a Glance[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]

The bureau also is working to educate government officials and spread the word about the online process prospective Census workers must complete to be considered for a job.

In the past, this has been done at community meetings and workshops. That won’t be the case this time around.

“People that want to work for us, they have to go online — and they can only go online,” Armstrong said. “That is a challenge.”

For every one person hired, the Census bureau will have to evaluate 10 people for the job — which further illustrates how tough a task it’s going to be, Armstrong said.

The Census Bureau needs people who live in and know the area they’ll be working to gather information, he said. They also need to pass background checks and be able to use a smartphone to process the information they gather.

It’s work that needs to be done and done right, Butler County Commissioner Kim Geyer said.

Before she became involved in government, Geyer said, she didn’t know the importance of the census, but as a commissioner she attested to how census numbers are used by county officials each day.

“We need to take this seriously,” Geyer said. “We need to help create awareness and help educate people.”

State and federal subsidies and grants use census data, and the population count determines congressional apportionments.

“Today, more and more public and private sector decisions are based on data-driven algorithms,” Cranberry Supervisor Richard Hadley said. “Without good data, we won’t have good decisions.”

It’s a sentiment that echoes the message being spread in Westmoreland County, where officials formed a complete count committee to educate people about the importance of the census.

“There’s a danger that some folks may not be counted, and that is just not OK,” Phil Koch, executive director of The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, a local grant-making organization, said in February. “And we looked at, who are those people that may be at risk of not being counted? It’s vulnerable populations and vulnerable communities.

“This is a privilege we have every 10 years. We need to capitalize on this time,” Geyer said.

Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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