SAN FRANCISCO (04/07/2000) - The U.S. Census Bureau says it's doing all it can to get residents to complete and return this year's forms. But despite a participation rate hovering around 50 percent, the agency has deliberately played down a new program that allows most households to complete the questionnaire online.
Officials say they are wary of hackers, and want to ensure that privacy is maintained. They say they view this year's online filings as a test for the next decennial census, when they expect the Internet to be the medium for more than half the returns.
The 10-year census effort is one of the largest logistical operations the U.S. government manages. The government delivers and collects forms from 98 million households, and complaints of undercounting are common. The census bureau estimates that its last effort undercounted minorities, the poor and immigrants by as much as four percent.
An online census could magnify that gap by making it easier for wealthier communities to take part in the census. On the other hand, it might increase overall participation. Regardless, online collection efforts should make it easier for the census bureau to complete its mission. With little fanfare but a lot of internal debate, the Census Bureau built a Web site that has enough power to process in only a few days all 80 million forms that are eligible to be filed online.
The agency has not tested the site on a large scale to see if it can withstand this level of response, or the kind of hacking that took some prominent Web sites offline in early February. Given its lack of experience, the census bureau did not feel ready to rely on the Internet as a primary means of collection this year. As a result, the agency did little to publicize the fact that people could file online. Instead, it told short-form recipients that they could seek help from a census Web page that is connected to the site that would let them file online.
"[The Internet] is very inequitably distributed as an opportunity across American society and because we're trying to focus on the communities that are not as well represented, we made an effort to spend our money and time where they would increase participation," said Director Kenneth Prewitt. "We are also a relatively cautious organization and so we wanted to use this year's census as an effort to test the system." Having tested the site's security and operability since March 1998, Prewitt decided in January 1999 to move ahead with the online project, albeit slowly.
To be eligible to answer the census online, a household has to be a short-form recipient - five in six are - and have a Web browser with 40 bits of encryption - a relatively low level of security. Given these requirements, 25 million U.S. households would be able to file online. As of March 3, the agency was on pace to receive fewer than 100,000 census returns online, according to Ed Gore, an operations official responsible for online efforts.
Former director Martha Farnsworth decided against using the Internet to collect census responses because she thought the public was too concerned with privacy and security issues to participate online, Gore said. For this census, he says, the site's main mission is to divert calls from the bureau's toll-free help telephone number. Since March 3, he said, the call center has been receiving about half as many calls as projected. As for the security issues, Gore says, "we have noted activities from time to time that might raise some suspicion.
But to characterize those as hacker attacks at this point is not really for certain." For the next census, Gore says, the agency will unleash a full-fledged online collection effort. In 2010, the census may use push technology to deliver an interactive version of the questionnaire to people's homes through their PCs or televisions, he says. No matter how advanced the technology becomes, though, Gore believes that snail mail will continue to play a role. "I don't think we'll ever get away from paper totally," Gore says.
"There will always be some element of the digital divide, and we'll always have to make a way to get to those people."