Editorial: Census and the Internet

There is a role for the Internet in the census collection process.

When we first heard that the Census Bureau was not going to use the Internet to collect data, we were ready to pounce. Frankly, we were inclined to agree with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who said during a recent hearing that he was going to “do everything I can to force the Internet down your throat with amendments.

You are living in the past, not the future. I recommend you get on board for 2010.”
That bravado aside, the bureau should be given credit for making a careful and thoughtful assessment of its use of the Internet for the decennial count. It is a massive job: counting everybody in the country every decade. And that count has enormous implications, including determining the number of House seats for each state.

Census makes a strong argument that using the Internet simply doesn’t make good business sense. There is little evidence that using the Internet to collect data will save the bureau money, Census argues.

Furthermore, using the Internet won’t help the bureau reach people that it doesn’t reach now, and it will not help the bureau reach groups that are traditionally difficult to reach, such as immigrants or the homeless. There is a concern that any evidence of Internet fraud or a security breach — either real or perceived — would hinder the bureau’s ability to collect data, even mailed-in data. Therefore, Census officials argue, in a worst-case scenario, the Internet could actually cost money and hinder the count.

Census officials argue that, far from being a Luddite, the bureau is a global leader in using the Internet to post data. As Federal Computer Week reported in the July 23 issue, the bureau will outfit 2010 census enumerators with handheld devices, which will be a big step toward eliminating traditional pencil and paper surveys.
Census officials compare their job to voting, which is not done via the Internet for many of the same reasons.

It is a convincing argument. It is well thought out. And it is conservative.
Fortunately or unfortunately — and it is probably both — the Internet is an essential part of how about every organization does business. We accept the bureau’s decision, but we also ardently believe that there is a role for the Internet in the census collection process.

During the hearing, Coburn outlined the Coburn Census Internet Challenge by asking the private sector to develop a role for the Internet in the Census count. We hope the minds at places such as Google, Amazon.com, Apple and Microsoft can help Census meet this challenge, if not for the 2010 census then certainly by 2020.