By: Nick Santangelo

Nov. 14 was GIS Day worldwide including here at Temple University’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA). GIS (Geographic Information Systems) Day provides those interested in GIS technology, which is used for spatial analysis, the opportunity to come together and share knowledge.

For GIS Day 2018, CLA hosted a workshop for extending ArcGIS Online skills and a series of lightning talks about topics ranging from using maps to tell lies, using mapping for place narratives, social vulnerability analysis for spatial decision support and more. At the heart of the event was the keynote speech from CUNY Mapping Services Director Steven Romalewski. His talk, Mapping to Support a Fair and Accurate 2020 Census and Beyond, explained how GIS technology is helping the U.S. Census Bureau ensure accurate counting, which has major ripple effects on politics, education, advertising, health care and more.

“When the census data is not accurate or comprehensive or fair, it’s a problem,” Romalewski told a standing-room-only crowd in Temple’s Architecture building last week.

Accurate Census Bureau data is critical to understanding where populations are and are not located throughout the U.S. Due to a host of factors (like lowered response rates and partisan attacks), however, Romalewski explained that the “risks to accurately collecting data have never been greater.”

People fearing someone from the government coming to their door and asking questions has long been a problem. But post-2010 instances of gerrymandering—when political parties try to rig congressional maps to their benefit—has a number of Americans more on edge more than usual. Their concern is that the count might result in someone being unfairly swept into or out of office, and some politicians are exacerbating that situation.

“There are a number of people in power who just, and it’s very striking, disregard data or they don’t like science, and it’s very, very concerning,” said Romalewski.

But there is hope. A broad coalition of organizations and people are coming together to help ensure an accurate count. CUNY’s Center for Urban Research is one such organization. The center helped the Census Bureau with the 2010 count and is gearing up to do the same in 2020. An application the center has created identifies so-called “hard-to-count” areas. 

Right here in Philadelphia, more than 850,000 people live in such areas. That’s because half the city’s residents are renters, who are less likely to complete census forms than homeowners. But it’s not just big cities that can be tough to count. Hard-to-count areas are everywhere from major metros to sparse rural communities from coast to coast. CUNY hopes its maps will help the Census Bureau by providing quantitative information about these areas and visualizing why they’re hard to count.

“Will it be enough?” asked Romalewski, rhetorically.” Time will tell, but we’re hopeful.”

The maps can do more than help with the count, too. CUNY used them to show how Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) beat out her incumbent opponent this year in a New York City primary election. Many believed Ocasio-Cortez had simply carried an overwhelming percentage of the Hispanic vote. CUNY’s maps, however, showed that she carried the vote among nearly all demographics.

Speaking of other applications, a student wondered if like health care and other industries also use the Census Bureau’s data, might they not feed their own data back to the bureau? Romalewski said the bureau is exploring as much, but the data is very different, so it might only be useful for supplemental purposes.

Romalewski also engaged an audience member about the citizenship question the bureau is considering putting on the 2020 survey. There is political pressure to ask if respondents are citizens, but there is fear that doing so will drive down response rates. Every question is rigorously tested before appearing on the questionnaire, and the testing has indicated the citizenship question makes many in immigrant communities afraid of completing the survey.

The Census Bureau, said Romalewski, views the question as a “monkey wrench” in its plans. It’s something the bureau needs to figure out, though, along with those hard-to-count areas. Otherwise, the political consequences could be dire for an entire decade.

“If the count is not good in 2020,” said Romalewski, “it will continue to be bad every year after, so it’s a big problem.”

Hopefully, Romalewski’s mapping application will help ensure that doesn’t come to pass.

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