April 2, 2020 | By Kyla Fullenwider

In the midst of the pandemic responding to the Census from home has never been more important.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, our everyday lives have been interrupted in ways that most of us have never experienced before. And as we all rush to respond through physical distancing and other means, government services and their day-to-day functions must carry on, adjusted and sometimes delayed, but not cancelled. Our trash is still being picked up, the United States Postal Service continues to deliver our mail, and the Census — America’s largest non-wartime mobilization — will continue its mission to count everyone in the nation.

As the former Chief Innovation Officer of the U.S. Census Bureau, I understand that the 2020 Census may feel less urgent than trash collection or mail delivery, but I also know census data impacts how our country operates every day. Census data are used broadly and throughout government, determining how many seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives and how more than $800 billion in federal funding is distributed annually for critical infrastructure including hospitals, roads, schools and social safety net programs. This includes funds for emergency preparedness and disaster response, programs we’re seeing on the front lines now. The census you filled out ten years ago is shaping the coronavirus crisis response right now, in real time, because we need an accurate population count to know how and where to distribute federal dollars.

Our civil servants are doing heroic work in this unprecedented time, and they need all of us to step up and do what we can — filling out the Census is an urgent, important way to do your part. The good news is that it’s easy to participate, and people are. According to the Census Bureau’s real time response rate map nearly one in three households have already responded online or by phone. However, response is below where it was at this time in 2010 and average daily increases in response rates are lagging. And the Census still needs to send hundreds of thousands of employees across the country to knock on doors of households that don’t self-respond. In an age of social distancing, this is not only a challenge, but it is counter to the recommendations of public health experts. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census Bureau has hit pause, delaying its door-to-door operations.

This is why it’s never been more important to respond early and on your own: we need to maximize self-response to minimize interaction. The more of us who respond now, the fewer home visits the Census Bureau will need to make, and consequently, fewer in-person interactions as we all work to flatten the curve and reduce the spread of coronavirus.

So how can you help?

First, stay home and take the Census. Just as we’re discovering new ways to stay connected with FaceTime, Zoom and Skype, the Census Bureau is deploying new technology that will make it easier for everyone to respond from the comfort of their own home. This year’s “digital first” Census is the first time the US Census Bureau is asking the vast majority of us to respond online at 2020census.govNot keen on the internet or have connectivity issues? That’s ok. Use the phone option instead — the Census Bureau is providing support in 15 languages. And if you prefer to respond by mail, that’s ok too.

Second, commit to reminding at least ten of your family, friends, and community members to respond. In a period when trust in the federal government is at historic lows, research shows the most “trusted voices” are the ones you know. Importantly, in a sea of misinformation you can share trusted resources such as this one from the Census Bureau. And remember the rule of ten: The Census is ten questions, takes about ten minutes, and impacts ten years.

Finally, share why the Census matters across your networks online. While it may not feel urgent in the middle of a global pandemic, now is the perfect time to show why facts and data matter both in responding to crises and in informing everyday life.

In my time at the U.S. Census Bureau, I worked alongside some of the most dedicated civil servants in our country. The statisticians, data scientists, and field workers, care deeply about a complete and accurate count and have been meticulously planning for years to ensure we are all counted in this year’s census. But as this moment is reminding all of us: even the best laid plans often go awry. The Census has been conducted in challenging circumstances across its 230-year history- on horseback, during war time, in hurricanes, and now, in the midst of a pandemic. I’m confident that we will get through this and we will get it through it together.

As we continue to see an incredible outpouring of civic spirit and activity across the country in response to this crisis, remember that your country and your community needs you to stay home, and to take the Census.

To learn more about how the Census is responding to COVID-19 : https://2020census.gov/en/news-events/press-kits/covid-19.html

February 7, 2020 | By Kyla Fullenwider & Katie Sullivan 

Cover of 2020 Census Digital Preparedness Playbook
Download the Playbook

Last month, the 2020 Census kicked off in Toksook Bay, a remote Alaskan fishing village, as the head of the U.S. Census Bureau, Steven Dillingham, arrived to personally interview the village elder and start the decennial process. While Bureau workers will travel around Alaska “on bush planes, snow machines, or snowmobiles, and dog sleds to get to villages,” this year, for the first time, millions of U.S. residents will have the option to respond to the decennial census online or over the phone, alongside the traditional mail-in form. Federal workers will use handheld mobile devices to conduct the count and social media channels will catalyze rapid, real-time sharing of census news and information. 

Though the first “digital” census presents an opportunity for a more participatory count, it also raises a number of obstacles that may threaten the completeness and accuracy of the 2020 Census. An incomplete census count leads to unrepresentative distribution of federal funding and political power while raising inaccuracies within the foundational dataset that is used by planners, policymakers, and researchers nationwide. An accurate census count is vital in ensuring the integrity of our democratic institutions for the next decade and beyond.

For the first time, issues such as data security, digital access and literacy, online form navigation, and social media driven misinformation and disinformation campaigns must be addressed.

Since the last decennial count in 2010, the political and technological landscapes of the United States have changed dramatically. While some challenges such as an increase in “hard to reach” populations persist across census counts, the digital nature of the 2020 Census raises new threats. For the first time, issues such as data security, digital access and literacy, online form navigation, and social media driven misinformation and disinformation campaigns must be addressed. With historic levels of distrust in the federal government, city and local governments will play a critical role in ensuring a complete count of their constituents. City leaders understand the importance of the census in allocating dollars and political representation to their most vulnerable communities. However, many cities lack sufficient preparation and resources to lead the charge in promoting an inclusive and accurate 2020 Census count. 

Today we are pleased to publish the 2020 Census Digital Preparedness Playbook which helps address some of these challenges by providing a set of practical resources and explainers on some of the most challenging issues facing local governments as they prepare for the 2020 Census. The playbook provides:

  • A framework city leaders can use to understand the unique challenges posed by the 2020 Census including disinformation, cybersecurity, the digital divide, and data privacy. 
  • Accessible one-page overviews giving decision makers information they need to recognize threats to the census’ integrity.
  • In-depth how-to resources helping city leaders plan their response, avoid digital census pitfalls, and increase participation. 
  • Comprehensive answers to commonly-asked questions about new issues in the 2020 Census including the internet response option. 
  • A series of case studies highlighting how cities like Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Indianapolis are developing new and innovative approaches fostering census participation.

The 2020 Census Digital Preparedness Playbook was drafted in close collaboration with city officials, subject matter experts, and in partnership with the National League of Cities, Code for America Brigades and National Conference on Citizenship. We invite you to read and share the playbook to better understand the challenges ahead and to help ensure that everyone counts in 2020.

Additional Resources

The rollout of the 2020 Census Digital Preparedness Playbook complements other Beeck Center efforts to support an accurate and inclusive 2020 Census count. 


Kyla Fullenwider is a Beeck Center Fellow leading our work around the digital implications of the 2020 Census, specifically, what local governments, journalists, leading digital platforms, and the public can do to prepare and participate in this crucial function of our democracy. She previously served as the first Chief Innovation Officer of the U.S. Census Bureau. Follow her on Twitter at @KylaFullenwider

Katie Sullivan is a Beeck Center Student Analyst, currently pursuing a Masters in Global Human Development at Georgetown University. Follow her on LinkedIn or email her.