Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Interviewed by Steve Riley of MixedRaceStudies.org

In January 2013, my colleague Steven F. Riley interviewed me for his website, MixedRaceStudies.org.  If you're interested in learning a bit more about me, my role on the NAC, and some of my other work, you can check out the interview here:

A Conversation with Eric Hamako

Steve's done an immense amount of work gathering, organizing, and commenting on a wide and deep body of articles and other resources.  If you haven't checked out MixedRaceStudies.org, I definitely recommend it -- it's a tremendous resource!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Who will benefit from AR-TPD "cost-savings"?

Reflecting on the second NAC in-person meeting and a few brief discussions about the use of Administrative Records and Third Party Data (AR-TPD), I was reminded of an old saying, which I’ll paraphrase:

“There’s never been a time-saving device that’s created a minute of leisure.”**

My interpretation of that saying is this: Lots of technological advancements are advertised as doing menial work, so that we have more time for relaxing or doing more meaningful work.  But that’s rarely what actually happens.  For example, at my job, I have a computer and it’s frustratingly slow sometimes.  In those moments, I think, “Gah!  If only I had a faster computer, I could be done with this work faster!”  And that’s true.  But if I had a faster computer and finished my work faster, what would happen?  Would my boss say, “You finished that right quick, guess you’re done for the day!”  

Probably not.  

A faster computer wouldn’t create more leisure time for me -- it would just create more time for me to do what I already do: work.  Because that’s what “time-saving devices” are really for: getting us to do more work, not allowing us to do the same amount of work and then having some time off.  

And when I think about the use of Administrative Records and Third-Party Data for the Census 2020, I have similar concerns.  Bear with me here.

Congress has mandated that the Census Bureau produce Census 2020 for approximately the same cost as Census 2000.  That’s a major budget cut.  

So, the Census Bureau is looking for ways to cut costs and use what we might consider time-/labor-/money-saving devices.  But, as with all devices, there are pros and cons to using Administrative Records and Third-Party Data.  On the plus side, they almost certainly will be cheaper than the current ways that the Census Bureau tries to gather data from “hard-to-count” populations (e.g., people who the Census has to chase around because they don’t send in their Census forms right away).  But, on the major minus side, many AR-TPD strategies are also not so good at counting “hard-to-count” populations.  For example, most AR-TPD strategies produce more accurate data about White people than about People of Color -- and the Census is already not as good at counting some of those People of Color.  And that’s a problem.  

A few of us raised this point at the March 14-15 NAC Meeting.  A Census Bureau administrator told us that, while they know that AR-TPD has some problems, it could “save” them money and they could then use some of that savings to spend on strategies that are better at counting “hard-to-count” populations.  To try to do this argument justice, I’ll present it as a personal analogy:
I need to cut my expenses by $1,000 this year and that means I can’t do my job the way I have been.  Using Strategy X, I can reduce my costs by $800 -- so Strategy X could be a valuable part of my overall cost-reduction plan.  I know that Strategy X isn’t so good with some of my clients, but that’s okay, because with the money I save using Strategy X, I can pay to use a little bit of Strategy Y, which is more expensive but also more effective with those clients.  So, overall, using a lot of Strategy X could help me reduce costs and maybe allow me to pay for a little bit of a more expensive strategy, too.  Then the work still gets done AND I meet my new reduced budget.

Now, let me be clear, I believe that that administrator really does believe that AR-TPD will reduce costs and that they really do want to take some of that “savings” and spend it on more expensive and effective methods.  But when I heard the Bureau administrator offer that argument, I started thinking about that “time-saving devices” saying.  Because, yes, ideally, using AR-TPD will allow the Bureau to save money and then spend some of that savings on  more expensive & effective Non-Response Follow-Up (NRFU) methods.  But then, ideally, a faster computer would allow me to save time and then spend that time going for a walk or talking with a friend.  But that’s not what really happens.  Really, with a faster computer, I finish my work faster and my boss adjusts her expectations: she gives me more work and expects me to do it at the faster pace.  And that’s what I’m worried will happen with AR-TPD: it may allow the Bureau to do its work for less money, but that “savings” might not actually get spent on the NRFU methods that’d be needed to fix, say, racial disparities in the accuracy of the counts.  Because when you show that you can do your work faster or cheaper, you don’t get time off or the same budget: you get more work and/or a smaller budget next time.  And Congress has already cut the Census Bureau’s budget -- and I don’t imagine that trend is going to change much in the next decade or two.

So, one important question that remains to be answered and one important issue for folks to keep an eye on: 

If the Census Bureau uses AR-TPD, a strategy that produces some inequitable results, will enough of the cost “savings” be redirected to other NRFU strategies for “hard-to-count” populations, so that the Census can address the inequities in its counts?

The answer, I think, will not be determined by technology -- it will be determined by people’s ability to organize, mobilize, and ensure that those “savings” really do get reallocated, rather than simply being erased from a budget spreadsheet.

**For a bit of historical commentary on the idea, check this out.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wanted: Nine new NAC members

The Census Bureau will be seeking nine new NAC members for July or August 2013, to replace those members who have either resigned or completed their terms.

Look for the announcement and details about the nomination process on the Census Bureau’s page in the Federal Register.

If you or someone you know might be a good fit for the NAC, please consider submitting a nomination.

The NAC Charter describes the NAC’s duties:

The committee will provide insight, perspectives and expertise on the full spectrum of Census surveys and programs to assist the Census Bureau in developing appropriate research/methodological, operational, communications, strategies to reduce program/ survey costs, improve coverage and operational efficiency, improve the quality of data collected, protect the public's and business units' privacy and enhance public participation and awareness of Census programs and surveys, and improve the dissemination of data products. 

The committee will examine and advise the Census Bureau on such areas as hidden households, language barriers, students and youth, aging populations, American Indian and Alaska Native tribal considerations, new immigrant populations, populations affected by natural disasters, highly mobile and migrant populations, complex households, poverty, race/ethnic distribution, privacy and confidentiality, rural populations and businesses, individuals and households With limited access to information and communications technologies, the dynamic nature of new businesses, minority ownership of businesses, as well as other concerns impacting Census survey design and implementation.­

Report-back: The second NAC meeting

 On March 14-15, 2013, I attended the second in-person meeting of the NAC in Washington, DC. At the meeting, I reconnected with other NAC members. Our three working groups presented some of our ongoing work and the Census Bureau presented information about a few topics. In this post, I’ll briefly outline some of the meeting’s content, provide links to further information about the content, and offer a few reflections.

Bear in mind, the underlying context for the Census Bureau’s current work and the NAC’s advising is one of economic and financial distress. Congressional actions are mandating the Census Bureau cut the costs so that it can deliver Census 2020 at roughly the cost of Census 2000. That’s a major budget cut. And Congress still ostensibly expects the Census Bureau to deliver quality information products and improve the Census’s ability to count poorly-counted populations (aka “hard-to-count” or “hard-to-reach” populations).

The meeting’s agenda mainly comprised presentations by Census Bureau employees or the NAC’s three working groups. (I’ve included links to information from the presentations, if you’d like to review what was presented.)

Census employees presented on the following topics:
  1. 2020 Census Update
  2. Ways to Optimize Self-Response in the 2020 Census (slides)
  3. Census Data Tool Demonstration (slides).  (This included a tour of the new version of the American FactFinder tool, which you can use to find answers to Census-data related questions (e.g., “What’re the rates of home-ownership in my county, for each racial group?”))

The NAC’s three working groups presented on the work we’ve done, so far.
  1. Administrative Records & Third-Party Data (AR-TPD) (slides)
  2. Race & Hispanic Origin Research (slides)
  3. Small Populations in the American Community Survey (slides)
Now a bit of commentary.

As with the first meeting, the second meeting had a lot of presentations. But the things I valued more were the time that my fellow members and I eked out to connect and to discuss things -- and the constructive criticisms that we were able to coordinate and present to the Census Bureau.

For example, NAC members challenged the Census Bureau to involve the NAC in setting the agenda for our work -- rather than having the Bureau be the primary agenda-setter. Some of us reiterated questions that arose during the first NAC meeting, back in October 2012: Does the Census Bureau expect the NAC to only focus on the Bureau’s priorities? Or is the Bureau prepared to hear from the NAC about other priorities; things that the Census may not currently be giving high priority? I’m still trying to figure out how to balance addressing the Bureau’s issues of interest (where they’re asking us what we think they should do) with addressing issues that the Bureau isn’t currently so concerned, but that I think it SHOULD be addressing. After all, the NAC’s function is to be a set of outside advisors to the Census; sometimes that means telling the Bureau things it may not want to hear or asking it to do different things, rather than just asking it to do the current things differently. It’s one thing to advise someone on how to row a boat differently; it’s quite another to say, “You’re rowing pretty well, but the boat isn’t pointed in the right direction.”

As a second example, NAC members also asked the Census Bureau to change up the format for the meeting. Currently, the in-person meetings are a lot like a lecture-based classroom. We sit and listen while various people present Powerpoint slides. At the end, we have a few minutes to ask questions or discuss. Then, we’re on to another presentation. That’s not how I like to organize my own classes -- and it’s certainly not how I’d organize things if I wanted to hear my students thoughts, prompt them to ask questions, or get them to dig in and discuss something. If you want someone’s advice, I think it’s better to spend more time listening to them than presenting to them. The Bureau presents us with a lot of information -- and much of it is information we need to make informed decisions or advise well. But several of us suggested that, if the Bureau wants to make the most of the in-person meetings and hear what we have to say about that information, then we need to change the format of the meetings. We asked that the Bureau give us the presentation materials before the meetings (e.g., in digital files or web-based presentations); that way, when we show up to the meeting, we’re already prepared to discuss the presentations and to ask questions of Bureau employees. As it is, it’s not easy to formulate good questions or have a thoughtful discussion about something you just finished hearing a presentation about.

So, having expressed some of our constructive criticisms and asked questions about the process, we’ll see how the Census Bureau responds and whether it makes such changes for the future meetings. As it is, the Bureau already responded to a request to reschedule the third NAC in-person meeting -- now, instead of being on Halloween of 2013, the third meeting will be October 17-18, 2013.

In the meantime, the NAC working groups will be meeting monthly via telephone, to work on our three current projects.

If you have comments or questions, please post them in the comments section, below -- and/or email me at CensusNAC (at) gmail (dot) com.