By embracing the web, the US Census Bureau hopes to achieve cost savings and improved response rates. On the first count, it might succeed -- eventually. As for the second, keep your fingers crossed.
Beginning in 2014, the US Census Bureau will permit limited opportunities to respond to questions online.
The impetus for seeking savings is clear. The gargantuan paper chase cost an astonishing $42 per capita in 2010, a total of $13 billion. Finland, abandoning the door-to-door method of counting heads, has seen savings of 90 percent.
The digital dabbling will begin with an experimental sample, namely the 3.5 million households randomly selected to take part in the American Community Survey. While it's a good idea to test a system like this in a limited field trial before adopting it for the main census, the experiment is a tentative one.
While completing the survey is mandatory for the households selected, not everyone will push it to the top of their to-do list. Since the Bureau intends to send out paper surveys to any households that do not respond online within two weeks, many respondents may end up filling in a paper form anyway.
The hope that going digital will increase the appeal of the ACS, or the main survey, to groups that respond poorly is surely much less firmly grounded than the expectation of cost savings. Many households attempt to evade the census, not because it's "old media," but because they are concerned about revealing personal information, or they can't be bothered.
The last thing likely to appeal to those who prefer to stay in the shadows is the digitalization of their information. Although legal restrictions prohibit the Bureau from sharing information, the self-selected sub-group of census evaders may be the most likely to fear data-sharing with the INS, IRS, or other authorities.
As for those who simply find the census a bore, putting it online to compete with Angry Birds, Facebook, and "Gangnam Style" may not be enough. Maybe it needs to be gamified, or be teamed with special offers.
Still, we shouldn't be too cynically dismissive of what seems to be a step in the right -- anti-bureaucratic -- direction.
— Kim Davis , Community Editor, Internet Evolution