The American Community Survey: Best Quality Data with the Least Public Burden


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The American Community Survey:  Best Quality Data with the Least Public Burden

Guest blog post by Mark Doms, Under Secretary for Economic Affairs

“Better Data for Better Decisions” is my mantra as I crisscross the country talking to people about making the data we collect easier to find, understand and use.  Making government data more accessible or “open” to improve government, business and community decisions is a major initiative in the Commerce Department’s “Open for Business Agenda.”  The open data initiative has the potential to fuel new businesses, create new jobs and help us make better policy decisions. 

One of our best data sources is the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS).  The ACS is truly a unique, national treasure, producing a wealth of data on which our country relies to make important decisions.  The ACS is used to inform disbursement of over $400 billion a year in Federal funds.  State and local decision makers rely on the ACS information to guide tough choices about competing funding priorities, such as locating hospitals, funding programs for children, building roads and transportation systems, targeting first responders, supporting veterans, locating schools, and promoting economic development. In short, our community leaders use ACS data to analyze how the needs of our neighborhoods are evolving.  And, our business users rely on ACS data to make key marketing, location and financial decisions to serve customers and create jobs. 

The value of the ACS is immense. It makes our businesses more competitive, our governments smarter, and our citizens more informed. 

This value comes from the fact that the ACS captures so much information so comprehensively.  But, this also means that the value of the ACS depends critically on the people responding to the survey, known as the respondents.  I met recently with members of the ACS Data Users Group, an organization dedicated to sharing innovations and best practices for ACS data use, to discuss how to get the best quality data with the least amount of respondent burden. This is of paramount importance.  A survey seen as too lengthy, burdensome and intrusive will produce lower response rates and could undermine both the quality of the data and value of the survey. But reducing the length of the survey could reduce the amount of information available for decision-making. 

The challenge before us now is balancing the need for better data with the need to minimize ACS respondent burden.  We have before us both a great opportunity to understand how best to balance the nation’s need for ACS data with the cost of gathering this data – specifically how to minimize the burden on respondents. 

That means we need to look at the questions we’re asking to make sure that the answers are still important and relevant.  Much of the current ACS content is driven by legislative requirements. For example, questions on computer usage and Internet access were added to support the 2008 Broadband Data Improvement Act.  

The Census Bureau is conducting a top-to-bottom content review of every question on the ACS.  They are asking whether the ACS is the only possible source for each data point, or whether another source of data could be used.  They are documenting the legal requirements for each ACS question and the need for data by federal agencies. And, they are also asking businesses, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations to weigh-in and detail which ACS data they rely upon to meet their sector’s needs.  

Finally, Census is looking at the burden that ACS questions place on respondents; both in terms of the time required to answer a specific question and the question’s perceived intrusiveness.  All of this research will culminate in findings and recommendations later this year that will be carefully considered in the future composition of the American Community Survey. 

This is an important opportunity for every American to make a difference in the way we collect the information that affects our daily lives.  I encourage anyone who wants to follow the ACS Content Review to subscribe to content review email notifications and tell us about your ACS data needs.   We want to hear from you!

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Last updated: 2015-09-25 11:09

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