Data Quality:

Improvements to Count Correction Efforts Could Produce More Accurate Census Data

GAO-05-463: Published: Jun 20, 2005. Publicly Released: Jul 20, 2005.

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The U.S. Census Bureau (Bureau) conducted the Count Question Resolution (CQR) program to correct errors in the count of housing units as well as dormitories and other group living facilities known as group quarters. GAO was asked to assess whether CQR was consistently implemented across the country, paying particular attention to whether the Bureau identified census errors that could have been caused by more systemic problems. GAO also evaluated how well the Bureau transitioned to CQR from an earlier quality assurance program called Full Count Review.

The CQR program, which ran from June 30, 2001, to September 30, 2003, played an important role in improving the quality of data from the 2000 Census in that it corrected numbers affecting 47 states and over 1,180 governmental units. Although this is a small percentage of the nation's more than 39,000 government entities, the count revisions impacted private homes, prisons, and other dwellings and, in some cases, were significant. For example, when the Bureau deleted duplicate data on students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and made other corrections, that state's head count dropped by 2,828 people. Similarly, CQR found that more than 1,600 people in Morehead, Kentucky, were counted in the wrong location. GAO identified several shortcomings with the CQR program, including inconsistent implementation by the Bureau's regional offices and the posting of inaccurate data to the Bureau's Web-based errata report. Moreover, while CQR found the counting of group quarters to be particularly problematic, the Bureau did not perform an active, nationwide review of these known trouble spots, and thus missed an opportunity to potentially improve the accuracy of the data for these dwellings. Further, because CQR had more stringent documentation requirements compared to a preceding program called Full Count Review, CQR rejected hundreds of unresolved full count issues, missing another opportunity to improve the data. As its plans proceed for the 2010 Census, it will be important for the Bureau to address the operational issues GAO identified. Moreover, because the data for apportionment and redistricting were later found to be flawed for some jurisdictions, it will be important for the Bureau to develop a count correction program that is designed to systematically review and correct these essential figures.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Census Bureau, it is striving to enhance the Count Question Resolution training and procedures such that the regional offices share a consistent understanding about the program. The Bureau's goal is to make sure that the regions implement the program consistently. The Bureau stated that it included this in the requirements documentation for the 2010 Census Count Question Resolution program.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the nation has the best possible data for purposes of apportionment, redistricting, and other uses of census data, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Bureau to improve its count correction efforts for the 2010 Census by taking such actions as enhancing the training and guidance provided to regional offices to help ensure they share the same understanding of their roles and responsibilities and will implement the program consistently.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To ensure there are no mistakes in the data the Census Bureau posts on its Web site, the Bureau has taken steps to recheck the data and to correct any mistakes. For example, Bureau officials added new columns to the existing data (the data is in an Excel format) that would create differences between the original counts and the corrected counts. The differences were scanned and any inconsistencies were investigated and corrected. According to the Bureau, all known errors in the posted data have been fixed.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the nation has the best possible data for purposes of apportionment, redistricting, and other uses of census data, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Bureau to improve its count correction efforts for the 2010 Census by taking such actions as improving the Bureau's quality assurance procedures to help ensure there are no mistakes in the data the Bureau posts on its Web site.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Census Bureau agreed with this recommendation and as a result placed prominent links in American FactFinder that directs users to census count corrections.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the nation has the best possible data for purposes of apportionment, redistricting, and other uses of census data, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Bureau to improve its count correction efforts for the 2010 Census by taking such actions as ensuring that instructions on the Bureau's Web site make it clear that updated information exists and that users can readily access this information.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Bureau has taken steps to implement our recommendation for investigating population count errors. Specifically the Bureau is implementing procedures to prioritize the investigation and resolution of significant errors to the population count. According to the 2010 Census Detailed Operational Plan for the Count Review Operation dated April 2009, the Bureau will focus its February 2010 Address Review on clusters of 50 or more geocoded housing units addresses (city-style only) in close physical proximity that appear to be missing from the master address file. Furthermore, in August 2010 the Bureau will document and verify specific issues of where large group quarters are not in the count or are geographically misallocated, and review any large anomalies in the population and housing counts.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the nation has the best possible data for purposes of apportionment, redistricting, and other uses of census data, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Bureau to improve its count correction efforts for the 2010 Census by taking such actions as prioritizing the investigation of errors based on the magnitude of the suspected error or similar triaging formula.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Because the Census Bureau does not believe this recommendation to be feasible, there are no plans to implement it.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the nation has the best possible data for purposes of apportionment, redistricting, and other uses of census data, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Bureau to improve its count correction efforts for the 2010 Census by taking such actions as expediting count correction efforts by initiating data reviews toward the end of nonresponse follow-up, when the Bureau starts getting complete data for geographic entities, and enumerators are available to help investigate any discrepancies. As part of this effort, the Bureau should consider using computers to systematically search for possible errors nationwide by checking data at the appropriate level of geography to ensure population, housing unit, and group quarter counts, as well as demographic characteristics, appear reasonable and are consistent with population estimates. Those areas that are outside of predetermined tolerances should be flagged for further review. The Bureau should also pay special attention to ensure group quarters are properly geocoded and counted.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Census Bureau is exploring ways to improve both Count Review and CQR operations for the 2010 Census but does not believe that it is either feasible or desirable to combine the two operations.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the nation has the best possible data for purposes of apportionment, redistricting, and other uses of census data, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Bureau to improve its count correction efforts for the 2010 Census by taking such actions as consolidating Full Count Review and CQR into a single program that systematically reviews and corrects any errors in the public law data prior to their release.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To address this recommendation, the Bureau developed a research, testing, and development plan. The objectives of the plan included the following: modify the definition of group quarters (GQ) to reduce classification error; modify GQ-type definitions and classifications to reduce classification error; determine the best methods for implementing GQ definition and GQ type definitions/classification in 2010 Census operations to reduce Census errors; determine operations required to improve accuracy of current Census 2000 inventory file and geographic reference base, including improvements to the accuracy of geographic assignment; determine coverage improvement sources (such as administrative records) and operations required to ensure complete coverage of Special Places (SP)/GQ; develop process that ensures integration of SP/GQ addresses with housing unit addresses and subsequent updates into Master Address File/Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (MAF/TIGER) system; determine basic enumeration method of GQ population and assess need for exceptions to core method; and research federal and state laws that restrict access to facilities and/or administrative records. The Bureau also addressed errors identified by the CQR program relating to geocoding errors by designing and beginning the MAF/TIGER Accuracy Improvement Program (MTAIP).

    Recommendation: To help ensure the nation has the best possible data for purposes of apportionment, redistricting, and other uses of census data, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Bureau to improve its count correction efforts for the 2010 Census by taking such actions as thoroughly testing improvements to the Bureau's group quarters and other address list development activities to help ensure the Bureau has resolved geocoding and other problems with its master address file.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to this recommendation, the Bureau noted that it has established a strategy that includes: modernizing the Master Address File/Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (MAF/TIGER) system; implementing the American Community Survey (ACS); and systematically developing and testing a short-form-only 2010 Census design that takes advantage of the opportunities offered by the MAF/TIGER system and the ACS. Such efforts have been at the core of the Census Bureau's efforts to reengineer the 2010 Decennial Census Program.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the nation has the best possible data for purposes of apportionment, redistricting, and other uses of census data, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Bureau to improve its count correction efforts for the 2010 Census by taking such actions as addressing persistent strategic management challenges, in part, through early testing to help ensure information systems, training, and other activities are fully integrated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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