U.S. Census Recounts Each of the 23 Headcounts in the Nation’s History

by Matt Ball on March 11, 2010

The U.S. Census Bureau is hard at work on the 2010 Census, fighting technological hurdles and an apparent malaise about being counted. In order to highlight the tradition of the these population counts that occur ever 10 years, the agency has put together some highlights for each of the 23 counts that have taken place since 1790.

The “Through the Decades” website contains interesting facts about the population size, the number of census workers, any new types of questions or race categories, and any new technologies deployed to ease this monumental task. There are some fascinating facts here about the changing size and makeup of the population as well as the march of technology.

Here are some of the details about the progression of computers and geospatial tools:

  • 1890 is the first year that census workers were given detailed maps to help complete their tasks, and it’s also the same year that an electric tabulating system was utilized for the count
  • 1950 was the first time a computer was used to tabulate results, and it was also the first computer designed for civilian use
  • 1960 was the first time that census results were digitally recorded (on magnetic tape)
  • 1970 was the first time that census data products were made available digitally on magnetic tape.
  • 1980 saw the creation of the State Data Center Program for easier access to digital data on computer tapes
  • 1990 was the year that the Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (TIGER), computer-based maps, was introduced. It also was the first year that data was released on CD-ROM
  • 2000 was when the Internet became the primary means of distributing Census data
  • 2010 won’t include the “long form” because this more detailed collection has been converted to the ongoing American Community Survey

Taken in 10 year chunks, this condensed history provides uncovers some trends about how society has changed, the growing role of technology for administration, and the way that Americans view themselves. The 2010 Census is less of a focal point for geospatial technologists given that the American Community Survey has provided much more detailed and ongoing data for spatial analysis, but it’s still the largest ongoing geographic data collection effort in the world.

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