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Shift to digital census raises fear of Iowa-like breakdown

Shift to digital census raises fear of Iowa-like breakdown
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SOLEDAD: WELCOME BACK TO MATTER OF FACT. BACK IN 2018, THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION WANTED TO INCLUDE A "CITIZENSHIP" QUESTION ON THE 2020 CENSUS. THE COURTS BLOCKED THAT MOVE. AND DESPITE THE FACT THAT QUESTION IS NOT APPEARING ON THE SENSES, A NEW POLL SHOWS 73 PERCENT OF LATINOS THINK THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION WILL USE THE CENSUS AGAINST THEM OR THEIR FAMILY. THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT CONDUCTS THE CENSUS EVERY 10 YEARS TO DETERMINE HOW MANY PEOPLE LIVE IN THE UNITED STATES. THE SURVEY ASKS HOW MANY PEOPLE LIVE IN YOUR HOUSE, THEIR AGES, RACE, GENDER THE POPULATION COUNT DETERMINES HOW MANY REPRESENTATIVES EACH STATE GETS IN CONGRESS FOR THE NEXT DECADE AS WELL AS HOW MUCH FEDERAL FUNDING COMMUNITIES RECEIVE FOR ROADS, SCHOOLS HOUSING AND SOCIAL PROGRAMS. LIZETTE ESCOBEDO, THE NATIONAL CENSUS DIRECTOR FOR NALEO, THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF LATINO ELECTED OFFICIALS. SHE IS IN LOS ANGELES THIS MORNING. IT’S SO NICE TO HAVE YOU. THANK YOU FOR BEING WITH ME. IS IT OVERT WHEN YOU’RE TALKING TO EVERYBODY BUT MAYBE LATINOS SPECIFICALLY, THAT, IN FACT, THE CENSUS CITIZENSHIP QUESTION DOES NOT EXIST ON THE CENSUS IN 2020? LEONE: WELL, ONE OF THE THINGS THAT WE LEARNED FROM OUR STUDY IS THAT ABOUT 50 PERCENT OF THE LATINOS THAT WE SURVEYED ACTUALLY THOUGHT THAT THE CITIZENSHIP QUESTION WAS STILL ON. SO ONE OF THE THINGS THAT WE LEARNED IS THAT WE HAVE A LOT OF WORK TO DO AND THIS IS ACROSS THE BOARD, NOT JUST WITH IMMIGRANTS OR NON-CITIZENS, BUT ALSO WITH LATINO CITIZENS AND LATINO MILLENNIALS SPECIFICALLY. SOLEDAD: WHAT DO YOU DO IN THE TRAININGS? HOW DO YOU TRAIN PEOPLE TO DEAL WITH PEOPLE WHO MIGHT SAY, LISTEN, I’M NOT GOING TO ANSWER THE CENSUS BECAUSE I AM CONCERNED MAYBE NOT FOR MYSELF, BUT FOR FAMILY MEMBERS WHO MIGHT BE THEN COUNTED, WHO AREN’T DOCUMENTED. AND THIS COULD OPEN A WHOLE WORLD OF TROUBLE FOR THEM. LEONE: ABSOLUTELY. SO ONE OF THE THINGS THAT WE’VE BEEN DOING IS WE HAVE THIS COMPREHENSIVE AMBASSADOR TRAINING THAT WE’VE BEEN TAKING ACROSS THE COUNTRY. AND ONE OF THE THINGS THAT WE INSTRUCT THE LEADERS IN OUR COMMUNITY TO DO IS, ONE, UNDERSTANDING THAT THEM AS COMMUNITY BASED ORGANIZATIONS. AND LATINO ORGANIZATIONS. THEY ARE ONE OF THE TRUSTED MESSENGERS ON THIS ISSUE. TWO, MAKING SURE THAT THEY INFORM THE COMMUNITY WHAT WILL BE ON THE FORM AND WHAT WILL NOT BE ON THE FORM. AND ONE OF THOSE THINGS THAT WILL NOT BE ON THE FORUM IS THE CITIZENSHIP QUESTION. SOLEDAD: WHAT WAS THE LEVEL OF PARTICIPATION BACK IN 2010, THE LAST TIME THE CENSUS WAS DONE? LIZETTE: WE HAD A LOW SELF RESPONSE RATE AND A LOW NONRESPONSE RATE. ALTHOUGH IT WAS LOW, OUR COMMUNITIES DID MAKE THEMSELVES COUNT. THIS IS WHEN WE LEARNED THAT THERE WERE 50 MILLION LATINOS IN THE COUNTRY AND THIS IS WHERE WE HAD AN OPPORTUNITY TO GAIN SEATS IN CONGRESS, IN PARTICULAR STATES THAT HAD GROWTH OF LATINOS. AND THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY THAT WE HAD TO GET THE FUNDING THAT WE NEEDED FOR OUR COMMUNITIES. HOWEVER, IT SHOULD BE NOTED THAT IN EVERY CENSUS, HARD TO COUNT COMMUNITIES OR HARD-TO-REACH COMMUNITIES, SPECIFICALLY LATINO COMMUNITIES HAVE NEVER BEEN ACCURATELY COUNTED. SO EVERY TIME THAT WE HAVE A CENSUS, IT’S KIND OF ADDING UP THE UNDERCOUNT OF EVERY 10 YEARS. SO WE HAVE TO MAKE SURE TH IN 2020 WE GET TO THE MOST ACCURATE COUNT THAT WE CAN. THE OTHER THING THAT WE TALK ABOUT LESS IN TERMS OF AN UNDERCOUNT IS ALSO GETTING CLEAR PICTURE OF HOW MANY LATINOS ARE IN THIS COUNTR WE LEARNED IN 2010 THAT WE ARE NO LONGER A MINORITY GROUP. WE ARE THE SECOND LARGEST POPULATION IN THE COUNTRY. AND SO MAKING SURE THAT ALL OF US ARE UNAFRAID AND COME OUT AND SAY WE LIVE HERE, WE WILL BE COUNTED HERE IS ABSOLUTELY IMPORTANT AND CRITICAL NOW MORE THAN EVER. SOLEDAD: THIS IS THE FIRST TIME THAT YOU CAN COMPLETE THE CENSUS INFORMATION ON AN APP. DO YOU HAVE CONCERNS WITH THAT? AGAIN, IF YOU’RE GOING BACK TO PEOPLE WHO ARE CONCERNED ABOUT GIVING OUT INFORMATION. SOMETIMES I THINK AN APP CAN EITHER MAKE THOSE FEARS EVEN GREATER OR KIND OF RULE OUT PEOPLE WHO MIGHT NOT BE PARTICULARLY TECHNOLOGICALLY SAVVY FROM EVEN TACKLING THAT IN THE FIRST PLACE. LIZETTE: YES, SO THE FOLKS WILL HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO FILL IT OUT ONLINE FOR THE FIRST TIME. HOWEVER, IT IS IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT THE CENSUS IS NOT AN ONLINE ONLY CENSU WHILE FOLKS WILL HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO FILL IT OUT ONLINE, INITIALLY, THEY WILL CONTINUE TO GET MAILINGS REMINDING THEM TO FILL IT OUT ONLINE. IF THEY STILL DON’T FILL IT OUT ONLINE, IN ONE OF THE MAILINGS, THEY WILL GET A PRINTED FORM THAT THEY CAN FILL OUT AND MAIL BACK IN. IF THEY DON’T WANT TO FILL IT OUT IN PRINT AND THEY DON’T WANT TO FOR LET OUT ONLINE AND THEY FEEL SAFER FILLING OUT ON THE PHONE, THEY WILL HAVE THAT OPPORTUNITY AS WELL. SOLEDAD: WHEN DID THE CENSUS BECOME POLITICIZED? I MEAN, THIS IS THE FIRST TIME THAT I REMEMBER. BUT MAYBE I’M MISREMEMBERING IT THAT THE CENSUS SORT OF BECAME A POLITICAL FOOTBALL. LIZETTE: EXACTLY. THE CENSUS BECAME POLITICIZED WHEN THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION DECIDED THAT THEY WANTED TO AD THE CITIZENSHIP QUESTION. HOWEVER, THE CENSUS IS NOT REALLY A POLITICAL ISSUE. IT’S AN ISSUE ABOUT COMMUNITIES HAVING THE RESOURCES THAT THEY NEED. IT’S ABOUT MAKING SURE THAT WE ALL COUNT, BECAUSE IF THERE’S AN UNDERCOUNT OF LATINOS, THERE’S AN UNDERCOUNT OF EVERY SINGLE COMMUNITY IN THE COUNTRY, BECAUSE WE’RE EVERYWHERE. IT’S 50 MILLION OF US, IF NOT MORE. SOLEDAD: LIZ
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Shift to digital census raises fear of Iowa-like breakdown
The stakes are high when a major civic exercise involves a large population, new technology that has not been thoroughly tested and an entire country waiting on the results.Just ask the organizers of the Iowa caucuses, which offered a cautionary tale on the technological woes that could befall a big political event. Some observers worry that this year's census carries the same potential for mayhem — except on an infinitely larger scale.The U.S. Census Bureau plans to try out a lot of new technology. It's the first once-a-decade census in which most people are being encouraged to answer questions via the internet. Later in the process, census workers who knock on the doors of homes that have not responded will use smartphones and a new mobile app to relay answers.A government watchdog agency, the Census Bureau's inspector general and some lawmakers have grown concerned about whether the systems are ready for prime time. Most U.S. residents can start answering the questionnaire in March.“I must tell you, the Iowa (caucus) debacle comes to mind when I think of the census going digital," Eleanor Holmes Norton, the congressional delegate for the District of Columbia, said this week at a hearing on the census.Cybersecurity is another worry. Experts consider the census to be an attractive target for anyone seeking to sow chaos and undermine confidence in the U.S. government, as Russia did in the 2016 presidential election.In a worst-case scenario, vital records could be deleted or polluted with junk data. Even a lesser assault that interfered with online data collection could erode public confidence. In 2016, a denial-of-service attack knocked Australia’s online census offline, flooding it with junk data.The Census Bureau says it's ready. The agency promises that responses to the questionnaire will be kept confidential through encryption, and that it's working with the Department of Homeland Security and private-sector security experts to thwart cyber attacks. To hinder illegitimate responses, the bureau is blocking foreign IP addresses and stopping bots from filling out fake responses, among many other measures.The bureau says it has developed two secure data-collection systems, so that if one goes down, the other can substitute. Other mechanisms are in place to prevent failure and to back up essential functions.“All systems are go," bureau Director Steven Dillingham said.For the past three years, the Government Accountability Office has placed the census on its list of high-risk programs, mainly because it is relying on technology that has not been used before.Just last week, census officials decided to use a backup data-collection system for handling the online responses. That step was taken after officials grew concerned that the primary system, developed by a third-party contractor, would not be able to handle excessive traffic. The primary system experienced performance problems when up to 400,000 people were answering questions at the same time.The backup system, called Primus, was developed in-house and can handle up to 600,000 users at once. But it was never tested during a test-run for the decennial census in Rhode Island two years ago.“Late design changes such as a shift from one system to another can introduce new risks during a critical moment," Nick Marinos, the GAO's director of information technology, testified this week at the congressional hearing. “The bureau needs to quickly ensure that the system is ready and that contingency plans are finalized to reflect this change and fully tested before going live."Then there's the mobile app for census takers who will be sent out to visit the homes of residents who have not filled out the forms by May. Bureau officials are still working to find out why the app sometimes needs to be restarted or reinstalled for it to work properly, according to a GAO report released this week.In Iowa, a newly developed smartphone app was blamed for delaying the reporting of results from the first-in-the-nation presidential contest.The Census Bureau has not finalized its backup plans for the online questionnaire system. As of the end of last year, the bureau still had to do 191 corrective actions for cybersecurity that were considered “high risk" or “very high risk," the GAO said. The inspector general currently is conducting another audit of the bureau's information-technology security, but there's no word on when it will be finished, said Robert Johnston, the agency's chief of staff.In Iowa, fewer than 200,000 voters picked a candidate. The census will be conducted on a much grander scale as it attempts to count residents in almost 130 million households with the help of 52 IT systems. The nationwide headcount has been touted as the largest peacetime operation the government undertakes.An accurate count is crucial for determining how many congressional seats each state gets and the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending. Respondents who do not want to answer the questionnaire online can do so by telephone or by mailing in a paper form.Dillingham told lawmakers that the concerns raised by the inspector general had been remedied. The Census Bureau is prepared to distribute millions of paper forms in the event a catastrophe prevents people from responding online, bureau officials added.“We can recover data if we had a breach," said Albert Fontenot, an associate director at the bureau. “At the worst case, we would send someone out to re-collect that data."Related video: Why is the 2020 census so controversial?

The stakes are high when a major civic exercise involves a large population, new technology that has not been thoroughly tested and an entire country waiting on the results.

Just ask the organizers of the Iowa caucuses, which offered a cautionary tale on the technological woes that could befall a big political event. Some observers worry that this year's census carries the same potential for mayhem — except on an infinitely larger scale.

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The U.S. Census Bureau plans to try out a lot of new technology. It's the first once-a-decade census in which most people are being encouraged to answer questions via the internet. Later in the process, census workers who knock on the doors of homes that have not responded will use smartphones and a new mobile app to relay answers.

A government watchdog agency, the Census Bureau's inspector general and some lawmakers have grown concerned about whether the systems are ready for prime time. Most U.S. residents can start answering the questionnaire in March.

“I must tell you, the Iowa (caucus) debacle comes to mind when I think of the census going digital," Eleanor Holmes Norton, the congressional delegate for the District of Columbia, said this week at a hearing on the census.

Cybersecurity is another worry. Experts consider the census to be an attractive target for anyone seeking to sow chaos and undermine confidence in the U.S. government, as Russia did in the 2016 presidential election.

In a worst-case scenario, vital records could be deleted or polluted with junk data. Even a lesser assault that interfered with online data collection could erode public confidence. In 2016, a denial-of-service attack knocked Australia’s online census offline, flooding it with junk data.

The Census Bureau says it's ready. The agency promises that responses to the questionnaire will be kept confidential through encryption, and that it's working with the Department of Homeland Security and private-sector security experts to thwart cyber attacks. To hinder illegitimate responses, the bureau is blocking foreign IP addresses and stopping bots from filling out fake responses, among many other measures.

The bureau says it has developed two secure data-collection systems, so that if one goes down, the other can substitute. Other mechanisms are in place to prevent failure and to back up essential functions.

“All systems are go," bureau Director Steven Dillingham said.

For the past three years, the Government Accountability Office has placed the census on its list of high-risk programs, mainly because it is relying on technology that has not been used before.

Just last week, census officials decided to use a backup data-collection system for handling the online responses. That step was taken after officials grew concerned that the primary system, developed by a third-party contractor, would not be able to handle excessive traffic. The primary system experienced performance problems when up to 400,000 people were answering questions at the same time.

The backup system, called Primus, was developed in-house and can handle up to 600,000 users at once. But it was never tested during a test-run for the decennial census in Rhode Island two years ago.

“Late design changes such as a shift from one system to another can introduce new risks during a critical moment," Nick Marinos, the GAO's director of information technology, testified this week at the congressional hearing. “The bureau needs to quickly ensure that the system is ready and that contingency plans are finalized to reflect this change and fully tested before going live."

Then there's the mobile app for census takers who will be sent out to visit the homes of residents who have not filled out the forms by May. Bureau officials are still working to find out why the app sometimes needs to be restarted or reinstalled for it to work properly, according to a GAO report released this week.

In Iowa, a newly developed smartphone app was blamed for delaying the reporting of results from the first-in-the-nation presidential contest.

The Census Bureau has not finalized its backup plans for the online questionnaire system. As of the end of last year, the bureau still had to do 191 corrective actions for cybersecurity that were considered “high risk" or “very high risk," the GAO said.

The inspector general currently is conducting another audit of the bureau's information-technology security, but there's no word on when it will be finished, said Robert Johnston, the agency's chief of staff.

In Iowa, fewer than 200,000 voters picked a candidate. The census will be conducted on a much grander scale as it attempts to count residents in almost 130 million households with the help of 52 IT systems. The nationwide headcount has been touted as the largest peacetime operation the government undertakes.

An accurate count is crucial for determining how many congressional seats each state gets and the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending. Respondents who do not want to answer the questionnaire online can do so by telephone or by mailing in a paper form.

Dillingham told lawmakers that the concerns raised by the inspector general had been remedied. The Census Bureau is prepared to distribute millions of paper forms in the event a catastrophe prevents people from responding online, bureau officials added.

“We can recover data if we had a breach," said Albert Fontenot, an associate director at the bureau. “At the worst case, we would send someone out to re-collect that data."

Related video: Why is the 2020 census so controversial?