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U.S. Counting on Web to Be Census Source

Data: Bureau plans to post most of its 2000 enumeration data on the Internet. Switch from paper to hypertext raises information issues.

November 15, 1998|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Census Bureau is laying ambitious plans to post the bulk of its 2000 census data on the Internet, rendering paperbound copies of the nation's statistical profile relics of 20th century record-keeping.

The plan, likely to provoke a new profusion of private-sector packaging of government information, caps a nearly decade-long effort by the Census Bureau to wean the public and media from relying on government demographers to crunch the numbers and divine the bottom line from a mass of raw data.

Given the potential for distorting information--and the increased costs to news organizations and academic researchers that historically have relied on the Census Bureau to parse the numbers--the bureau's plans have drawn relatively little opposition.

The few critics fret about whether the quality and veracity of government data could be compromised by marketers who may enhance the materials in their zeal to tailor it for business clients. Others express concerns about the Internet being used as the primary venue for the dissemination of federal statistics without a national policy for cyberspace information storage and retrieval.

'Just the Tip of a Much Bigger Iceberg'

"What the Census Bureau is doing is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a Washington-based organization that monitors public access to government records. "The government doesn't have a plan for regulating its data. [Federal officials] can't, or shouldn't, be putting it out there willy-nilly because what they are releasing affects us all."

But if information experts worry about policy implications, savvy entrepreneurs are only too eager to gobble up the bounty of information, repackage it and sell it at a profit.

And the Census Bureau is only too happy to encourage such entrepreneurial spirit.

"We have no copyright on census data," said Don Wynegar, chief of marketing services at the bureau. "Our information is available to anyone to gather and, if they are enterprising enough, to resell to whomever will buy it."

Ken Needham, president of SCAN/US Inc., a Los Angeles-based software manufacturer, is waiting in line to capitalize on the census Internet data. His firm has evolved from a tiny start-up doing marketing research for a few clients in 1972 into a $2-million-a-year firm that sells software that merges census data with geographic maps so companies can target their products to the most receptive markets.

Canada Charges for What U.S. Gives Away

"The United States is different from a lot of countries," Needham said, noting that some countries refuse to make public their census data and others demand stiff duties for it. "Canada charges an arm and a leg for the same information that the U.S. Census offers relatively inexpensively."

Hoover's Business Press in Austin, Texas, makes no pretense of its dependence on U.S. census data. Hoover's borrows heavily from the Census Bureau's annual publication of the Statistical Abstract of the United States, a 1,000-plus-page document that includes virtually every fact and figure on the nation's people and companies. Hoover's sells The American Almanac for $17.95, which is about 35% less than the price of a nearly identical book published by the bureau.

"We just buy negatives for [the government] book . . . slap our name on the spine and sell it cheaper than they do," said Stephanie Dodds, director of marketing at Hoover's. "It's pure profit for us. That's why we do it."

So complete is the Census Bureau's transition from paper to pixels that a recent survey of 5 million businesses will be published almost entirely on line.

"The results of that survey are trickling in now and should be due out in February," said Mike Bergman, a Census Bureau spokesman. "When completed, it will be released about 90% electronically. The last time we did this survey, in 1992-93, it was put out about 90% on paper."

Bergman said that the business census will serve as a test run of the bureau's ability to distribute data in the nationwide 2000 census and to gauge how the public will respond.

"The idea is to put this new system in place and allow people to do the sophisticated number-crunching themselves online."

Census Bureau Web Site Is Big Draw

Bureau officials said their Web site (http://www.census.gov) is already among the most popular in the world. That claim is endorsed by PC Magazine Online, a New York-based publisher that tracks computer and Internet use.

"Your tax dollars and the tax dollars of 270 million others are hard at work at the Census Bureau, where activity is gearing up for the 2000 census," PC Magazine says of the Web site. "In the meantime, you can explore the vast amounts of fascinating data at this site to learn more about your town, county or state by searching for just about any slice of the demographic pie that interests you."

During a recent demonstration of the bureau's Internet capabilities, census officials demonstrated to reporters how they or anyone with access to a computer could sort through the volumes of data on file, create special categories and download detailed demographic or population information.

"We're averaging more than 4 million hits per week," said Wynegar, referring to visits to their site by Internet users. "We're serving more people now because of the Internet."

After the 2000 census data has been collected and tabulated, it too will be posted on the Internet site. Then, he added, anyone who wants it can have easy access.

"Once we have the data up on our Web site, it will generate opportunities for middlemen to repackage the data and sell it. Millions of people who have access to the Internet will be able to dial us up. There will be numerous vendors looking for ways to use the materials. We're giving it away."

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