More than a whimper


Somewhere buried in the news of the day we will probably miss the fact that Tuesday, December 21, 2010 should mark a major blast in the ongoing saga of Census 2010. The headlines, I predict, will focus almost exclusively on which states win/lose Congressional seats. The Census-based reapportionment is a momentous outcome, of course. Still, it is but one immediate and visible application of the massive data collected in the 2010 Census. Though reapportionment means a lot to the politicos and the media and ultimately to the people, it is simply not sufficient to let that be the end of the discussion of what Census 2010 can and should mean in the lives of ordinary people.

A year ago we were inundated with grand information campaigns encouraging participation in the Census. It was great, almost heady, stuff! Advocacy groups, nonprofits, churches, neighborhood organizations, education groups were getting together on the common cause to promote understanding and participation. All in all, it was one of the most united, effective, positive initiatives I’ve ever witnessed. I get excited remembering the energy and commitment that prevailed.

Then comes the whimper…I worried then and I’m more worried now about how that Census information will ultimately improve the lives of the millions of good people who took time, overcame fears, and shared information about themselves with the U.S. government. We know that developers, government agencies, advertisers, planners know where the data are and how to use them. That’s as it should be. My concern is this: If information is power, what are we doing to empower the people to put to good purpose that data that is theirs — ours. What resources — money, time, energy, focus — will we commit to ensure that the information works for the people?

The surge to push for participation was generously funded by the government, eagerly taken on by a host of responsible organizations. To some extent, the message was simple and straightforward: Census 2010 is not a threat, it’s important, participate.

Now it gets complicated: The challenge now is to learn how to use those numbers to shape and improve services, to allocate resources, to interpret needs and to identify solutions. The process is neither glamorous nor fast-paced — it’s just essential. We owe it to the people who listened and shared their time and information. The government, state or federal, can do just so much. It remains to those same groups who worked so hard last year — the media, nonprofits, churches, advocacy groups, educators — to stay on duty. That means following the Census data as it oozes out of the federal government. It means learning new skills, taking serious time to locate, organize, interpret, apply and share the information and the skills of access.

Tuesday, December 21, ought to signal a major kickoff of the next phase of Census 2010. We can’t expect that thrust — the energy or the resources — to emanate from the federal bureaucracy. The commitment simply must come from the field where those who care about outcomes for real people. Information power as a priority is unprecedented. Those who believe in the power of an informed public to make good decisions need to shift gears to incorporate access to government information, including Census data, as a priority. Access tools are in place or within reach. The data are gathered, eager to gush forth on demand. My hope is that the next phase of Census 2010 will go forth not with a whimper but with a mighty bang.