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The 2020 Census: Mapping the Undercounted

A collaborative of civil rights organizations is using geospatial data to help in the effort to improve response rates among the populations that are hard to count.

Census takers will begin calling and visiting homes in Mid-August that have not yet responded to the 2020 U.S. Census. (Photo courtesy of Volusia County, Fla.)
"There's a science to telling the story of folks who have not traditionally responded to the Census," says Jamal Watkins, the vice president of civic engagement at the NAACP. "Where do they live and how can we decide how to target those communities?"

Undercounting is a problem for every Census, and populations that are typically undercounted include very young children, people of color and immigrants. The consequences of undercounting include diminished political representation and a loss of federal funding for the jurisdictions where they live.

Thanks to the efforts of Watkins and the NAACP's partner organizations at the Racial Equity Anchor Collaborative for this year's Census, this data story is being mapped across the country. As part of the collaborative's "We Vote, We Count" mission, it is using geospatial information to not only show where these hard-to-count communities are but also is using data and mapping to improve Census response rates.

That's happening in the face of an unexpected complication: This year's Census-counting efforts had been extended to Oct. 31 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Trump administration announced in early August that all counting would instead end by Sept. 30. "Given COVID-19 and the strain our communities are under," says Watkins, "the shortened counting period means more people left out and the game of the haves and the have-nots continues. A true disaster for the American people."

A federal judge in California has blocked, at least temporarily, the effort to wind down the counting at the end of September. But even if that one-month breather is upheld, the collaborative and its community-based partners will need to rely even more on their data tools to accurately target harder-to-count groups.

The NAACP has used geospatial tools to find connections among race, class and health before, but in 2018 it led the collaborative to build out a cloud-based GIS data hub for the Census. "Our public-facing map of harder-to-count communities layers the data in a different way than most of the other hard-to-count maps," says Elana Needle, the director of the collaborative's effort at the Latino civil rights organization UnidosUS. "It's a little more targeted and a little more nuanced."

Making this more-nuanced map hasn't been easy. Because the federal government doesn't track Census responses by race, the NAACP data team and GIS expert Tony Fairfax need to upload the federal response data and then back-step it into communities by race. This extra step is crucial, since undercounting disproportionately affects all the "overlapping communities of color" the collaborative partners work with, including not only African Americans and Latinos but also American Indian/Alaska Native and Asian American/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander communities.

The local Census work would typically be mostly on the ground; door-knocking is a central part of Census outreach. However, the pandemic has altered community engagement. "We're all pivoting to a digital reality," says Watkins, "It's not a choice, it's a reality." While the digital efforts have included virtual Census parties, hashtags and groups like #MyFamilyCounts and @Todos_Contamos, and online Census tutorials, Needle and Watkins remain concerned about the impact of primarily virtual engagement, particularly given the possibility that counting may have to end in just a couple of weeks.

Many of the harder-to-count communities are not English-proficient, and translation services are expensive. Mailed Census documents are only in English or Spanish. Census call centers offer assistance in 13 different languages, but large-scale call centers full of interviewers aren't a viable option during the pandemic. And while this is the first Census to offer an online option available in multiple languages, many of the harder-to-count communities are not digital natives or have unreliable Internet access.

However this year's Census works out, after the counting is over the Anchor Collaborative wants to continue using its map and data hub to direct racial justice action. On the national level, the NAACP is continuing to use GIS and mapping to look at the relationship between factors like income levels and rates of lung disease in the Black community. It is also investigating the link between nutrition and school performance, working with a clinic in Michael Brown's high school in Ferguson, Mo.; the research says that a school-based clinic should have an impact, and the NAACP is using GIS to map and track the data.

Those efforts illustrate the vital need, in any effort to shift structural barriers and attack social inequity, to sift the data through the kind of sophisticated approach the Anchor Collaborative is using for the Census. "If you just take data in a silo and don't understand the context," says Needle, "you won't understand that that's the manifestation of structural inequities."

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University.
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