Parsons Transdisciplinary Design Studio Develops Solutions for the 2020 Digital Census
The stakes are high for the 2020 census, the first one in a digital format, and there’s widespread concern that marginalized populations could be severely undercounted, potentially depriving them of funding for education, transportation, housing, and other essential services.
A fall 2019 Parsons Transdisciplinary Design project studio was dedicated to coming up with ways to promote participation in the census by those marginalized populations. The studio, taught by David Carroll, an associate professor of media design, and Samuel Haddix, an adjunct professor at Parsons, was also aimed at finding ways for these groups to take part without putting themselves at risk in these politically fraught times.
Since 2018, Greta Byrum, a founder of The New School’s Digital Equity Lab, has done extensive research on the 2020 census; she advised the Transdisciplinary Design students and helped with introductions and referrals to organizations involved in the census process. Haddix said that without Byrum’s help, “we wouldn’t have the frontline jumpstart we had, without the trust and integrity she already established.” In June 2019, the lab produced a risk assessment report that provided its “best possible recommendations given a number of uncertainties about the Census Bureau’s plans and systems.”
“The interesting thing about the census as an idea is that it is an expression of civics, but also overlaps between politics and policy,” said Carroll. “That is, the census is politicized, but it also directly results in policy, and so it’s an interesting place where democracy occurs, and it’s an interesting place where being counted is an expression between multiple levels of government. At a moment when we have anxiety about data, we’re asking every person to give their data to the government. That is a unique transaction that has to occur to create a civic reality. We learned about the census together to figure out mechanisms to understand it and potentially better support it.”
The students were divided into four teams, each of which created its own census interventions.
One three-student team developed a prototype for a “census report card” and have continued working on this project in hopes of attracting interest for its use for the 2020 census. With the assistance of Byrum and the Digital Equity Lab, the students, Raissa Xie, Mohammed Sial, and Max Stearns, have conducted talks with representatives of the New York Public Library system to determine whether it can be used for the upcoming census.
The deceptively simple report card (“easily printable and intuitive,” according to Stearns) took months of research and planning and can be filled out either digitally or by hand on paper.
Xie said that the trio attended census events and training sessions and watched webinars to get a sense of what New Yorkers thought about the census and how they were preparing for it.
“Understanding the system from the beginning was so crucial to our work,” Xie said. “It set the groundwork for finding the different spots that we wanted to focus on.”
The idea is for libraries in underserved communities, which are often hard to track, to give people the option of completing the census report card after they’ve filled out the census.
The form allows census participants to report problems accessing or logging in to the census portal, filling out the census form, and submitting the form.
The form also asks participants to “add details of any challenges you experienced in talking the census.”
The report cards can serve as a record of problems that occurred during the census process and can be used by numerous city and legal organizations in the aftermath for greater accountability.
Sial explained why it’s important to do outreach with NYC communities — overwhelmingly low income and immigrant groups — that are historically low response and hard to track.
“This is politically quite turbulent for them, on top of it being the first digital census, and with the digital divide, there’s concerns about hacking and phishing,” he said. “They don’t have any reassurance for the risks they are taking. There’s no feedback and no accountability for the people who are taking the biggest risks. This project was about building accountability. We wanted to make sure we’re supporting an accurate count but also introducing a mechanism for accountability. That’s what the report card is.”
Sial added that these communities are being targeted with misinformation about the census.
“Accuracy matters and getting a full count really matters,” said Stearns. “That’s how representation occurs; that’s how funding occurs. But also these communities are feeling especially vulnerable in today’s political situation. And so it’s about how to ensure they participate but have the reassurance that their participation is not putting them at risk.”
Another team of Transdisciplinary Design students developed a set of playing cards designed to be used by the children of potential census participants. The cards were tested at public libraries around the city, allowing the children to understand the census system and the role the census plays in the lives of underserved communities.
The goal is for the children, as the families’ digital leaders, to take the cards home, play with their parents or caregivers, and initiate a conversation on the census — how it critically affects neighborhoods and families and its essential role in political representation. The students have been looking for grants to fund this project and are also holding discussions with the public library about using the cards in the run-up to the 2020 census.
“The class produced at least two student projects that may be adopted for use by New York libraries and other groups during the 2020 census, and the class has become a standout example of how, by working with practitioners, academic institutions can provide value in external partnerships and real-world experience for students,” said Byrum. “I think it was great working with the students; they became really invested, and each group took interesting and thoughtful directions as they became aware of the stakes.”