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story.lead_photo.caption In this undated image provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, census geographers at census headquarters in Suitland, Md., use the Block Assessment, Research and Classification Application (BARC) as they prepare for next year’s count.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The U.S. Census Bureau is relying on planes, satellites and high-tech tools to help get an accurate population count next year.

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 a 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 minority-group communities 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 President Donald Trump's administration can add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which opponents say would suppress the count of migrants who fear to reveal 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."

That's what census employees intend to do while avoiding the political battles, Dillingham said.

"The culture of the census dictates us to be impartial," the bureau director said during a recent trip to New Mexico, which has one of the most difficult populations to accurately count. The state has a sizable American Indian population and the highest percentage of Hispanic residents in the nation.

Bishop said the technology will especially help such areas that have struggled for accurate counts.

Another focus for the technology is Mississippi's majority-black Bolivar County, just across the river from Arkansas' Desha County.

In Bolivar County, only 59.7% of households mailed back their 2010 census questionnaire, according to the City University of New York's Center for Urban Research. The national rate was 74% in 2010, according to a Census Bureau news release.

The bureau began using the new imagery technology in 2013, Bishop said. Employees have been double- and triple-checking satellite images and those captured by the Department of Agriculture's National Agriculture Imagery Program during the growing seasons in the continental U.S.

Around 100 technicians are able to examine the entire nation with satellite and aerial images while sitting at their computers. They are assigned specific neighborhood blocks and look for growth and decline in the number of residential buildings by comparing images from 2009 to the present.

Two hours of canvassing in the field during the 2010 census now takes less than two minutes in the office, the bureau said.

"With that information, we can then decide to use our staff more efficiently" to knock on doors of homes that did not respond to online or phone questionnaires, Bishop said.

A Section on 06/24/2019

Print Headline: Technology to ease workload of census

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