Congress takes aim at critical Census survey

Potential loss of American Community Survey huge for government, business

In the quest for more sources for rich and voluminous data, it would seem more than a little strange to watch a government entity actually hamper one of the most tried-and-true data-gathering organizations on the planet.

Yet that appears to be what has happened thanks to the U.S. House of Representative's decision to slash the U.S. Census Bureau's budget by up to $100 million for the 2020 Census. The appropriations bill passed 232-190 on May 9 by the House also specifically discontinued the American Community Survey (ACS), an annual survey of approximately three million randomly selected U.S. households that collects deep demographic information.

The amendment to cut the ACS and reduce the budget for the upcoming 2020 Census may, as its author Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) suggests, indeed save the Federal government $2.5 billion over the next 10 years. But what Rep. Webster and the rest of the bill's supporters may not understand is that the costs from the loss of the data from the ACS will be much, much greater.

The issue is this: the data collected from the ACS is used to distribute nearly $420 billion annually to communities and states--everything from economic development and commerce, to Medicaid and highway funding.

In other words, the ACS tells the government where money should be best spent.

Granted, the Federal government--and the state governments that also make use of the ACS data--don't always know how best to spend any funds, but at least with the ACS data they can make some fairly well-stipulated target amounts.

George Washington University Professor Andrew Reamer put the death of the ACS in very succinct terms in an interview with The Atlantic last week:

"'It would cause massive disruptions in the federal government, because you've got all these programs that are statutorily required to distribute these funds based on certain criteria, and those criteria assume that data is there,' Reamer says."

It's not just government that would suffer: businesses can put a huge value on the data from the Census Bureau and the ACS specifically.

"Census Bureau data gives us information around [urban] population density, around owner occupancy where we know that space is at a premium," explained Ted Smetana, Director, Store Segmentation for Target in a video on the value of ACS data. "So thinking about folding chairs, smaller furniture, to help guests when they have smaller spaces."

"And then we also started digging into the details of that urban population. Understanding family structure, household size, where they were living, how big their house were… all of the information from that rich data in the ACS," added Kate Whittington, Target's Director of Guest Insight.

But opponents of the ACS see a far more sinister plan at work. The few comments of that video also are full of vitriol from people who think that the Census Bureau goes too far in gathering the ACS data and is violating their privacy. Sadly, this misperception appears to extend all the way up to members of Congress.

"I think it's important to have the information, but it's important that people have freedom and liberty and we do not have an intrusive federal government that would impose a fine on people if they didn't let the information come out about whether they had a flush toilet," said Rep. Steve King (R-IA) on the House floor late week.

The Census Bureau should probably explain what normalized data is and that the neighborhood-level data released by the Census Bureau means that individual identities are not revealed in any Census data that is gathered for at least 70 years. The recent release of 1940 Census data would be a good example of how that policy works.

And that flush toilet data (which does seem weird at first) can be used to ascertain use of water, sewage facilities, and be one marker of poverty-level living conditions.

The question is not whether the ACS should be used to spend more or less money. That is a political issue. But knowing how best to (not) spend funding should appeal to both sides of the aisle. It is telling that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which tends to be a fairly conservative organization when it comes to government regulations, strongly opposes dismantling the ACS.

"It is especially important to some of our bigger members for trying to understand geographic distinctions and other granularity in the economy," explained Martin Regalia, the Chamber of Commerce's chief economist.

The bill, H.R. 5326, is not expected to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate in its present form, thanks to the ongoing deadlock in Congress. But anyone who uses data to implement business strategy should make sure that a similar cut doesn't make it through in another bill.

Otherwise data, big or small, will become far more scarce for business, and the U.S. government will find itself merely guessing on how to appropriate funds.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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