Census enumerating takes turn with 21st century tech

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Canvassers for the U.S. Census Bureau began working this year to confirm addresses across the nation in order to improve and refine the agency's list. COURTESY U.S. CENSUS BUREAU

Twenty-first century technology will play a major role in the 2020 Census.

Next year when we all receive the invitation in the mail to participate in the national count, almost every resident in the United States will have the option to respond using their computers through a secure link.

The census will continue to be paper-based for Puerto Rico; the U.S. Island Areas (American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands); very remote areas, such as parts of northern Maine and Alaska; and areas that experienced a natural disaster.

For those folks living in group facilities, such as student housing, correctional facilities, military bases, health care facilities and shelters, facility administrators will complete that information.

Even people who are experiencing homelessness will be counted by the people running service-based sites such as emergency and transitional shelters, soup kitchens, mobile food vans, and non-sheltered outdoor locations.

In the year 2092, genealogists will be delighted with this technological advancement. The reason they won't see this census until then is because a public law enacted Oct. 5, 1978, ruled that individual decennial (every 10 years) census records would be sealed for 72 years, a number chosen in 1952 as slightly higher than the average female life expectancy (71.6 years at the time, according to Wikipedia).

For those who aren't comfortable using the online option, residents may respond by mail or phone to the census.

Up until about 60 years ago, every census was taken in person by an enumerator - a census taker - who was tasked with visiting every address in an assigned area. The information was handwritten, and dependent upon the accuracy of the informant - whatever adult was home at the time.

In 1960, urban residents were mailed census forms while rural residents continued receiving visits.

Then in 1970, for the first time, every residence was mailed a seven-page form to fill out and mail back. From that point on, we received paper census forms to be filled out with information based on who was in the home on April 1 - Census Day.

Census information is highly sensitive and personal. By law, all information, such as who lived where, where they came from and all of the other details that are on these forms, is kept strictly confidential for 72 years from every government agency except the Census Bureau.

And every Census worker takes a lifetime oath under penalty of a $250,000 fine and-or five years in prison. That covers breaches by people.

To protect the information that will be entered online, Kevin Smith, Census Bureau's chief information officer, said in a Census Bureau release that their cybersecurity program was designed to "protect our data and technology to ensure it remains resilient in the face of persistent and evolving cyber threats.

"In order for us to conduct a successful 2020 Census, we know that the American public must trust we are able to protect the data they provide," Smith said. "The technology we use to collect data online has been designed with many layers of security and advanced security tools. The Census Bureau includes a team of cybersecurity experts who monitor and protect all agency technology around the clock."

That cybersecurity also includes the smart phones that enumerators will use when they come around to visit and get information from those households that have not yet mailed, called or entered their census information by April 1.

And that's a job that you, too, could have, depending on the openings in this area.

For more information on job opportunities, visit census.gov.

In the meantime, when the official census envelope arrives next year, follow the directions - no matter what option you choose.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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