Census Data is So 2000! – How to get data more recent than Census data

1960 Census Data Collecting

1960 Census Data Collecting

When planners need demographic data, they often turn to the US Census. But Census 2000 data is now horribly outdated.  Even when Census data is up-to-date, there are potential inaccuracies as highlighted by Justin Wolfers in his New York Times post  “Can You Trust Census Data.”  When having accurate demographic data is vital to the success of a project, planners should consider using a Community Social Assessment (CSA).

What is a Community Social Assessment (CSA)?

A community social assessment is a self-completion survey that measures a geographically-defined community’s demographics, the relationships within the community and the opinions about current neighborhood conditions and future roposed projects.  Some people refer to CSAs as social assessments, community impact assessments and several other names; while to others, a community impact assessment is another thing entirely. I'm focusing on the survey tool only in this blog post.

For example: Dr. Richard Krannich from Rocky Mountain Social Science recently used a CSA in an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Utah Department of Transportation’s Geneva Road project.  Krannich’s CSA asked dozens of questions about issues such as resident and household characteristics, neighborhood social integration and cohesion, resident use of the project corridor, resident opinions about traffic and road conditions and about action alternatives.

Now I can hear you thinking–“What a waste of time. No one would respond to a self-completion survey for a new road.”  But Dr. Krannich was able to achieve a nearly 80% response rate.  I'll tell you how he did it below.

But first, when would I use a CSA?

If you have time and money in a project’s budget, a CSA can provide more current and thorough social data. This data could prove invaluable for projects that are likely to have environmental justice or community cohesion impacts.  In an article for the American Behavioral Scientist Journal, Krannich stated that community studies may be better predictors than socio-economic data for obtaining what people think about their environment.

How do I conduct a CSA and get people to respond?

Step 1: With your project area in mind, write a questionnaire that can measure the community cohesion, public opinion and the social impact of your project. Some interesting questions from Krannich’s CSA include:

  • Are you likely to move in the next two years?
  • How sorry would you be if you had to move away?
  • How many personal friends live within 2-3 blocks?
  • How often do you socialize on the other side of the road?
  • Read more about the Geneva Road project CSA here.

Step 2: Mail the questionnaire to either all people in your area of interest (if it's small) or to a random sample (if it's large).  Local appraisal districts are an excellent source of name and address information for residents in a project area.  Include a self-addressed, pre-paid postage envelope for responses.

Step 3: Keep track of the questionnaires that are mailed back to you.  For those questionnaires that are not returned to you, follow up with multiple callback attempts.  Appraisal districts may have telephone numbers of residents.  If they don't, try looking up phone numbers via a reverse phone book like WhitePages.com.  A reverse phone book allows you to enter an address, and it will provide a phone number.

Step 4: And for the residents that you can't reach via mail and phone calls, consider a field visit to knock on doors and speak with them in person.

You can save money and time by using low cost touch methods (i.e. mail) first and then following up with only the residents that don't respond with high cost touch methods (i.e. a personal visit).

What results can I expect when I conduct a CSA?

This process can give planners access to information that they could not find in Census data, such as how much a community is physically active. For example, Krannich’s CSA included questions like: “How often do you get out to walk, jog, or bicycle?” and “Do your children walk or bike to school?”

Also, obtaining more accurate data is possible with a CSA. For example, in Krannich’s case, the project area's Census 2000 data reports that 10.1% of the population is Hispanic, whereas their 2007 CSA survey reports that 13.6% of the residents are Hispanic.  Granted in this case, there is not a huge difference between 10.1% Hispanic and 13.6% Hispanic. But some regions in the United States have seen large demographic shifts in the past decade years (see “Diversity Spreads Out: Metropolitan Shifts in Hispanic, Asian, and Black Populations Since 2000“)

Where can I get more information on conducting CSAs?

The Social Assessment and Social Impact Assessment page on HD.gov has some good links to guidance documents for conducting CSAs or social assessments. I think the best place to go to get more information is to read actual CSAs and see how planners used this tool for real projects.  Here are two examples of projects that used CSAs:

Geneva Road EIS – This project studies proposed improvements to two major roadways, Geneva Road and a portion of Provo Center Street in Utah.

Tortugas Ecological Reserve – To protect the reef from further degradation, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary oversaw a three-year collaborative process, dubbed “Tortugas 2000.” Sanctuary advisory members, stakeholders, and government agency members were represented throughout the process. “Tortugas 2000” resulted in the implementation of the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, a fully protected marine reserve within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Your Thoughts?

Have you worked on or reviewed projects that used CSAs? If so, leave me a comment below. Was it a helpful tool? If possible, please link to your project for others to review.

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