High-tech tools help with 2020 census in remote places

Jose Espinoza, 18, stands outside his mobile home with 4-month-old daughter Emmily and wife Maria Rodriguez, 19, in Vado, N.M.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Census Bureau is using new high-tech tools to help get an accurate population count next year as it faces challenges tallying people of color who live in remote places and can be wary of the federal government.

The agency is using aerial images of rural communities and hard-to-reach areas to verify addresses and determine where to send workers to ensure everyone is counted, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said.

Satellites and planes take photos, and bureau employees compare the housing captured in the images to digital maps from the last census, in 2010. It takes a fraction of the time needed by workers in the field.

The agency has used geographic technology since 1990 but has never had access to such accurate tools from the air, said Deirdre Dalpiaz Bishop, head of the bureau’s geography division.

That technology — known as geographic information system, or GIS — uses computers to analyze neighborhoods, land formations, rivers and other data captured by satellites or traditional mapping.

The new technology to improve the census comes amid concerns that tribal areas and communities of color may be undercounted in the every-10-year tally that determines the amount of federal money states receive and whether they gain or lose U.S. congressional seats.

The U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether the Trump administration can add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which opponents say would suppress the count of immigrants who fear revealing their status to federal officials.

The Census Bureau also is facing criticism for planning internet and telephone questionnaires, which advocates say would be more likely to overlook rural areas without reliable communication infrastructure.

Steven Romalewski, director of the City University of New York’s Mapping Service, said the criticism is fair but credited the Census Bureau for using its geographic and aerial technology to gather needed data about the most difficult populations to count.

“The technology alone is no guarantee that you will have an accurate count,” said Romalewski, who is mapping “hard to count” communities ahead of the census. “But if you leverage data with satellite imagery, you have the best information before you.”