A Digital Census Critque

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Despite the media buzz leading up to the unveiling of the final 2010 census, the “big tally” of 308,745,538 U.S. residents was anticlimactically revealed Dec. 21 when most people were more interested in eggnog and mistletoe. To illustrate, search volume and overall interest for the 2010 census has fallen flat since the number was revealed, according to Google Trends:

This decade’s census cost taxpayers a whopping 325% more than the 2000 census, $14.5 billion. To justify this expense, the census organizer’s marshaled their best PR abilities to over-communicate their achievements along the way. While I am not merely blogging to complain about how the government bought a golden toilet seat, I am blogging to both applaud and critique the 2010 census website and the data collection methods. I choose this topic as the site has become the census’ focal point in the communications strategy.

From a data collection standpoint, the entire process reeks of obsolete technologies and archaic methodologies. In the digital age, why are we still chopping down trees and sending snail mail to complete basic questionnaires? Of course there is a need to ensure that the census is conducted for every U.S. household, but with more than 80% Internet penetration, census administrators could have deployed advanced Internet data collection methodologies to eliminate some of the cost structure. In doing so, the data collected could have been much more robust as there would not have been the space and size restrictions associated with a print questionnaire. The site hosts an interactive presentation of the 2010 census form, boasting that this is the shortest form in history: 10 questions in 10 minutes. The organizers missed the point. It isn’t about the number of questions are in the form, but rather how quick and easy the form is to complete. Having an interactive, intuitive online form would’ve resulted in more questions, less time and less cost. Lastly, an online questionnaire portal would’ve revealed incredible statistics, like time spent, number of user sessions, etc. All which would’ve revealed invaluable information regarding poll takers sentiment toward the census.

As for the Census website, the designers seemed to have taken queues from Obama’s smashing social media success. The core site is a hodgepodge and virtual mash-up of different social media integrations. Social media, as a transparent communications channel, naturally embodies the spirit of democracy; however, the application of social media like anything else, is dirt in, dirt out. While the site has a cool, web 2.0 look and feel and presents many interactive elements, the site lacks a certain transparency regarding the data, as well as certain social API’s, mash-ups and polls. For instance, there is no place to download the raw data and there are no ad-hoc polls giving visitors the opportunity to share their thoughts and feedback. In addition, other mash-ups, such as population overlays with Google Earth could have added valuable visual elements.

On the plus side, the census site is fairly engaging and interactive thanks to many basic social media elements. For example, the site features a blog, a multimedia center hosting a video, photo and audio gallery, as well as call-outs to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

Additionally, the site’s “virality” is very positive. At every junction, the site’s developers included viral icons like the Add This plug-in, as a well as prominent links to the major social media platforms as list above. In addition, the blog enables readers to send to a friend and to subscribe to an RSS feed.

Arguably, the most valuable feature is the 2010 census data interactive map highlighting population change, population density and apportionment. The map enables users to scroll over states of their choice to view relative data. It also enables visitors to embed the map on your site using Iframes.

Unfortunately, the site fails when it comes to translation. The site has a language function which only translates a basic introduction page and fails to translate any of the other sections. The basic intro page hardly appeases non-English speaking residents. Better yet, a simple integration of Google’s translator could have translated the entire site. This was a negligent omission.

Apportionment — the process that determines the dividing of seats in the House of Representatives among the 50 states — should be taken seriously. After all, it determines how federal funds are allocated back to our congressional districts. As such, I was surprised that the Census team decided to give the section a whimsical label and logo: The Amazing Apportionment Machine. The treatment comes off as immature and seems to undermine the gravity that the process deserves.

Despite some obvious omissions and lack of transparency, I rate the site with overall good marks. It captures, condenses and communicates the results of the Census in an intuitive, logical fashion. Better yet, the site leverages social media tools that provide visitors with a platform to share their opinions and thoughts and to advance the citizen-government dialogue. We just hope they hear our point loud and clear: $14.5B is a ton of money to spend on a census in any age, and particularly in the digital age and in tough economic times.