This article has been updated to clarify Californians who may not have taken the census in 2010, and to reflect U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

The California agency working with federal authorities on next year’s U.S. Census is using technology in new ways to ensure the state’s roughly 40 million residents get counted.

As many as 11 million state residents may not have taken the census in 2010 and could be considered among its hard-to-count population, Emilio Vaca, deputy director of outreach for California Complete Count, said at the recent California Digital Government Summit in Sacramento. That’s why officials with California Complete Count Census 2020 are already using modern IT tools in what they say will be the first time the census is done online; and to get records off paper ahead of the 2030 U.S. Census.

“It really comes down to, we cannot do this without technology,” Emilio Vaca, deputy director of outreach for California Complete Count, said at the recent California Digital Government Summit in Sacramento. The actual number of Californians who went uncounted in 2010 is believed to be far lower according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A coverage measurement report the federal agency produced after the 2010 Census reflected a “net undercount” of 95,600 people, or about 0.26 of 1 percent of the population at that time. Among the DGS takeaways:

• The agency collaborated with Redlands-based mapping and spatial technology company Esri to create the Statewide Outreach and Rapid Deployment (SwORD) internal mapping portal, and worked with data scientists from the state Department of Finance (DoF) on its public-facing version, The California Hard-to-Count Interactive Map. Vaca described SwORD, live since 2017, as the agency’s platform, a “big engine of maps” and “an avenue of us knowing where to do the work … to understand where the work is happening in those Census tracts.”

Together, the portal and map aggregate data including American Community Survey results from DoF, household-level data from canvassing volunteers, and 14 hard-to-count characteristics that identify residents or areas that may be difficult to capture. Characteristics, including lack of Internet and limited English proficiency, color the map from orange to red depending on hard-to-count likelihood.

• California Complete Count has also contracted with Norwalk-based data and software company Political Data Inc., (PDI) at a cost of around $500,000, to create an app that will assist canvassing volunteers. The goal is to move Census takers off paper and create real-time updates that sufficiently anonymize personal information but demonstrate in real time where canvassing is successful and where more attention is needed.

Paul Mitchell, PDI vice president, told Techwire that the app differs from other campaign programs the company has built by working off generic addresses rather than individual and household voter records and by ensuring that data collected is “just survey responses that get applied to individual voter records.” The app also allows volunteers to canvass areas that need to be counted but don’t have addresses, like homeless encampments, by creating address points.

Having this level of actionable information, Vaca said, will let his agency pivot, redeploying resources in a timely fashion to target areas with low or incomplete results. The plan, he told Techwire, is to train staff on the app this month and next, potentially going live in October.

• California Complete Count worked in-house to create the California Census 2020 Virtual Assistant chatbot. It's available free to Census partners and is capable of answering questions from Census volunteers as well as residents. The bot was created using a Microsoft artificial intelligence service on the back end, and is hosted on Microsoft Azure, according to Ben Rogers, SwORD solution architect. 

“We have some counties that are using it right now. It’s like an opt-in, so if a county wants to use it, we’ll give them the code. I’d rather they spend the money on outreach, than have to build their own website for knowledge,” Rogers told Techwire. The chatbot went live at the end of June and is being updated with at least 10 new questions a week.