Professor O’Hara said the spurt of public and available data opens up new avenues towards a much more accurate census, but only if the numbers can be proven accurate and the Census Bureau can navigate the delicate line between exploitation of private research and the publication of public statistics.

“There is not yet significant buy-in” to major changes in the census, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a longtime census expert and consultant to governments, businesses and other census “clients,” in an email. “Too soon without research, testing and transparency on these kinds of questions. And there will likely be even more caution about using third-party commercial data.

That said, she added, many users of census data agree that better use of external records, conducted in a way that preserves confidentiality and credibility, could increase the accuracy of the count and reduce its staggering cost – $14.2 billion, or about $117 a year. household counted in the 2020 census.

What seems clear is that the current way of counting the nation’s population is reaching its limits. The first census by mail was conducted in 1960. The nation has since counted itself by tallying the completed census forms on millions of kitchen tables, then sending an army of enumerators to collect data from millions more who haven’t filled them out.

The 2020 census simplified this process by moving most forms to fill out from cumbersome paper surveys to the internet, and equipping census workers with iPhones and census apps instead of clipboards and paper forms. The online census forms proved a resounding success, according to census officials, because they were easier, cheaper and faster to process, and because the Census Bureau’s IT operations processed them with virtually no problems. .

Yet despite these improvements, the share of residents who chose to fill out census forms remained stuck at two-thirds of all households, where it has remained stubbornly for four decades. The so-called nonresponse tracking, known as NRFU, of the remaining third, carried out by census workers, has been crippled by hurricanes, wildfires, political interference and growing suspicion at government among supporters of the political right and among racial and ethnic groups. groups.

Steve Jost, a former senior census official who is a consultant for the Census Project, a group advocating a more accurate count, lamented that. Tracing nonrespondents is about half the cost of each census, he said, but the census still fails to reach 2-3% of households.