GIS and the US 2020 Census

Mark Altaweel


The 2010 Census resulted in a dataset that was well suited for GIS and spatial analysis. The 2020 Census will be no different, in this regard; however, what changes might we expect? From what the Census Bureau has promised, new technical advances should make both data collection and analysis much easier.

The most significant change is the 2020 Census will mean that this is first census in which online responses will be the primary method in which the Census Bureau will collect data. This will help to not only automate and facilitate the data collection process, but it is hoped that this will also encourage greater participation and response. This will also reduce costs; the 2010 Census, for instance, cost about $12 billion.

However, experts have warned that this opens up the whole census survey to potential cybersecurity issues that including falsified information or misinformation that results in response data being potentially manipulated. Additionally, privacy issues have become a potential issue as data collection goes online. The Census Bureau has promised to use algorithms such as differential privacy that attempt to hide personal information about respondents.[1]

New Map Tools and Methods for the 2020 Census

While the data collection will go online, to a large extent, there will also be new tools and methods to collect and use the 2020 Census data. The Census Bureau has contracted with Esri to create tools and applications for the 2020 Census. One book, GIS and the 2020 Census: Modernizing Official Statistics (affiliate link), has come out on the topic of preparing spatial and GIS tools for the 2020 Census. This work has focused on preparing workers, including collected field data, and operations managers in best collecting and applying geospatial tools such that the data are easily deployed for spatial analysis and GIS.

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Topics covered include cloud computing, Location as a Service (LaaS),  and new data sources that are shareable on a wide number of platforms and useful for analysts and policy makers. The 2020 Census has gained recent press attention due to potential changes to questions given; however, it also promises to be the most amenable to spatial analysis using new computing methods and data sharing such as cloud computing.[2]

Screenshot from the  Response Area Outreach Mapper (ROAM) created by Esri.

The Challenge of Increasing U.S Census Response Rates in Communities

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be in the area of recovering data from communities that have historically had low response rates to the census. This includes poorer, mostly urban communities. As the demographics of such communities is known, Esri has developed a tool, Response Area Outreach Mapper (ROAM), that can be used to predict which areas will likely have a lower response, helping the Census to better focus its efforts by having field agents and other outreach encourage a higher rate of response relative to previous surveys taken.

The data are based on the American Community Survey, which provides racial, ethnic, and socio-economic background into communities in the United States and the data from the latest survey results could be used to help predict or inform area where efforts need to be more concentrated.[3]

In a 2018 field trial of ROAM, it was found that Census Bureau workers were about 50% more efficient than the previous census. This means that less employees will be hired this time around to carry out the census, given the gains in efficiency.[4]

The 2020 Census promises to be the most technically advanced census undertaken, where data, for the first time, will be mostly collected online. For the GIS community, Esri will be leading the way in creating tools that so far have shown promise in making the 2020 Census also more efficient than previous data collection efforts.

New cloud-based and LaaS tools also potentially mean researchers and analysts will be better able to access and apply data at larger and more fine, spatial scales for research. However, this touches upon issues of cybersecurity and privacy, which the Census Bureau has released information to address.

These challenges, and potentially others that are not foreseen, could be new areas that the Census Bureau might have to address in the year leading up to the census and even beyond.


[1]    For more on key changes and plans for to the 2020 Census, see: For more on concerns related to privacy, see:

[2]    For more on the new book mention on the 2020 Census and GIS, see: Laaribi, A., Peters, L., 2019. GIS and the 2020 census: modernizing official statistics (affiliate link). Esri Press, Redlands, California.

[3]    For more on ROAM, see:

[4]    For more on the efficiency results using ROAM in a field trial, see:

See Also

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.