Census Bureau touts ‘successful’ test of internet self-response, other 2020 innovations

"The big takeaway from the 2018 census test is that all of our systems deployed and integrated effectively," Albert E. Fontenot, Jr., associate director for decennial census programs said Monday.
(Getty Images)

Census Day 2020 is officially one year away, and Census Bureau officials say the internet self-response component is looking good.

Agency leaders spoke Monday about the upcoming undertaking, as well as the work that’s gone into it so far, including a 2018 end-to-end test conducted in Providence, Rhode Island. The 2020 census will be the first to allow all households to respond online.

“The big takeaway from the 2018 census test is that all of our systems deployed and integrated effectively,” said Albert E. Fontenot Jr., associate director for decennial census programs, during a press briefing in Washington, D.C., with other officials. “In our test, real people were able to use the technology in real world conditions. Respondents were able to effectively navigate and use our internet self-response application.”

Over 52 percent of households subject to the test responded without the push of an advertising campaign, Fontenot said. Of these, 61 percent responded online. The rest responded via phone or mail.


Census officials are hoping that internet self-response will be popular next year. And it’s not just responses that will be enabled by modern technology — the Census Bureau is also using a suite of new geographic information systems to help find where people reside and motivate them to participate in the count.

The end-to-end test was able to “successfully implement” these innovations, too, Fontenot said. Of course, canvassing Providence is a far cry from counting the entire country.

“We are currently working to make sure that all our systems can scale up and perform effectively to handle the level of work that we expect for the 2020 census,” Fontenot said.

The IT stakes for the census are high — not just because of the importance of getting an accurate count, but also because of the costs the agency has incurred getting the 52 new or legacy systems it will rely on up to date. The bureau has reported that IT costs grew from $3.41 billion to $4.97 billion between 2015 and 2017, and these numbers haven’t gone unnoticed by lawmakers or watchdog agencies.

In February, Senator Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., sent a letter to the bureau asking about its IT systems testing and backup plans. The bureau has since assured Enzi that it is working to address these concerns.


In 2017, the 2020 census was added to GAO’s list of high-risk government programs.

Tajha Chappellet-Lanier

Written by Tajha Chappellet-Lanier

Tajha Chappellet-Lanier is a technology reporter at FedScoop. She previously worked for DC, NPR and USA Today. If she had a superpower, it'd be navigating foreign metro systems.

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