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Census '10, 2.0: A Look, in Real Time, at Which Americans are Being Counted

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, March 24 2010

Credit: 2010.census.gov

Legend has it that every time an American drops his or her completed census form in the mailbox, a tiny register in the basement of the U.S. Census Bureau makes a ca-ching!, ca-ching! noise. If you stand very quietly, they say, you can even hear it from the street. Why's that? Because, according to government research, every one percent increase in the rate at which Americans mail back in their census forms can save up to $85 million in taxpayer money. That's the savings from the reduced need to send a human wave of door-knockers to pester people into completing the decennial survey. If all 120 million American housesolds sent census forms return them by mail, and they can do away with going door-to-door altogether in 2010, the Census Bureau estimates that the U.S. would have an extra $1.5 billion in its pocket.

And so, the Census Bureau is counting on the web. They're partnering with Google to create an interactive map showing just which American communities are mailing back their census forms -- and which spots in the U.S. are lagging behind. (Go play with it, and then come back. We'll wait.)

The data is updated daily. (As things stand today, March 24th, the mail-in participation rate is at 16% nationwide.) In some places, you can drill down on the map to census return rates on the town level. In others, you'll have to settle for county-level numbers. In many ways, the Census Bureau's mail-in map is a shining example of government 2.0 -- a smart marriage of government data and open-source technology that might actually do some real good, right now.

It's all rather fun, frankly, to have hard, real-time data on which places in the U.S. are meeting their civic duty, and which places might need a little push. Where this gets actually civically useful is where mayors, governors, organizers, and advocates are able see how well, on a day-to-day basis, the people they represent are complying with the 2010 Census. "The collaborative partnership with Google allows communities the ability to track how their area is responding to the once-a-decade count," says the Census Bureau in a release. The head count is important stuff because, as you no doubt now, this census data will be used to determine everything from local hospital funding to the size of a state's congressional delegation.

One state of the union with little be ashamed of thus far: Iowa. Iowans often defend their first-in-the-nation role in presidential primaries by citing their commitment to their civic duties. They might be right. Of the top five cities or towns in terms of census participation rates --with mail-in rates of 70% or better -- four are in the Hawkeye State. Their shut-out is stolen by the civic-minded burg of Nora Village, Nebraska. Expand that to the top 15 places, and eight are Iowan.

That said, Iowa as a whole is clocking in at 23%. Respectable. But it's not say, Montana. Fully a third of Montana households that have received census forms have already shipped them back in. Other states with similar rates of participation include Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.

And then there's Texas. Texans have mailed in their census forms thus far at a rate of about 12%. Which is still four times more than the pace of Floridians' compliance. Ouch. (I don't have much room to poke fun at Florida's single digits here, though. Brooklyn, what up with that 6%? We're getting our butts kicked by Staten Island, at a rate of more than 2-to-1.)

The Census Bureau's daily mail-in participation rate data is available for download in CSV format. It'd be fascinating to see someone mash this up with other available government data like, say, poverty rates, or broadband penetration. Or perhaps plotting census compliance against political party affiliation might be fun. The Census Bureau is encouraging local government and tribal leaders to check out the map, and then start pestering their people, offline and online, to mail in their census forms. On offer are sample tweets. "The #2010Census form: 10 questions that take about 10 minutes to answer," reads one. "Help yourself, your family and <<NAME OF TOWN>>."

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