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Two and a half years from now, the Census Bureau plans to send an army of temporary workers door to door all across the country. Using the global positioning system, they will record for the first time the exact location of every dwelling. Many companies and local governments would love to get their hand on that information. The Census Bureau says they never will.
Dan Charles reports on the program and what governments and companies want to do with the data.
DAN CHARLES reporting:
It's not an easy job keeping track of what's where in this fast changing country.
Mr. CALEB GUTSHAW(ph) (Intern, Delaware County): That one's 28. This one's 24.
CHARLES: Caleb Gutshaw, for instance, can't figure out who to list as the occupant of an unnumbered commercial building on North Winter Street in Delaware, Ohio.
Mr. GUTSHAW: I'm looking in the window. It doesn't look like anybody's in there.
CHARLES: Gutshaw and his fellow summer intern, Sherri Fezel(ph), are updating Delaware County's master address list, making sure that every house, apartment and office building is accurately cataloged and photographed.
Mr. GUTSHAW: The condo association people like to come out and give us grief sometimes.
Ms. SHERRI FEZEL (Intern, Delaware County): Why are you taking a picture of my house, is what we get all the time.
Mr. GUTSHAW: Be a little defensive, but as soon as you explain what you're doing, they are usually very helpful.
CHARLES: Delaware County, on the fast-growing northern edge of Columbus, Ohio, is one of the most meticulously mapped areas of the country. That's due in large part to the passion and devotion of Shoreh Elhami, the county's Director of Geographic Information Systems.
Ms. SHOREH ELHAMI (Geographic Information Systems, Delaware County): Having a geographic data set that is comprehensive, accurate and current is priceless.
CHARLES: At her computer, with a few clicks of the mouse, Elhami pulls up a complex, multilayered picture of Delaware County. Standard commercial software lets her highlight sewer lines or flood plains or real estate tracts. She can pick any address and retrieve pictures of that building from overhead and from the street, along with information about its owner.
The map can answer questions you never expected to ask, she says. Last year, a big storm came through. A reservoir on the Olentangy River, just upstream from the town, was in danger of overflowing and authorities thought they might have to release water through the dam.
Who in town might be flooded? Nobody knew. Elhami rushed to her electronic map. She added a new layer to the picture, an image she'd received from the Army Corps of Engineers showing low-lying areas that would end up under water.
Ms. ELHAMI: This darker area is the inundation zone.
CHARLES: So, each of those little red dots is an address that's within the inundation zone?
Ms. ELHAMI: Exactly. The software allows you to do a count of every one of those residences and produce a file of those addresses.
CHARLES: Within 24 hours, Elhami delivered that file to emergency managers and they quickly called the people at each address. Fortunately, the storms subsided and no flood came. It would be wonderful, Elhami says, if every local government in America, and not just relatively well-off ones like hers, had such an accurate map of all its houses.
And as it happens, the federal government has a plan to assemble that information for the entire country. The Census Bureau wants to send 100,000 workers armed with handheld GPS devices out into the streets and down dirt lanes.
Robert LaMacchia, head of the Census Bureau's geography division, says they'll capture the latitude and longitude of the front door of every house, apartment and improvised shelter they find.
Mr. ROBERT LAMACCHIA (United States Census Bureau): We will actually knock on doors and ask and look for hidden housing units. You will find converted garages and from the outside, it may not look like a housing unit or that somebody lives there.
CHARLES: So everybody in this whole country can expect a knock on the door from a census address canvasser?
Mr. LAMACCHIA: During the first part of 2009, yes.
CHARLES: Recent proposed budget cuts have put part of this plan in jeopardy. But if Congress restores the money, the census will end up with the geographic coordinates for about 110 million homes, accurate to within 10 feet.
But the Census Bureau can't by law share that list with anyone, even local governments. Robert LaMacchia says that information has to be treated as confidential. Otherwise, people might lie, and the census wouldn't be accurate.
Mr. LAMACCHIA: People would not tell us about their hidden housing units. People would not respond to the questionnaire if they believed that anything the Census Bureau had would essentially be turned over to law enforcement or code enforcement and become public information.
CHARLES: But there are growing pressures to change the law and make this information available. Local governments want it and so do private companies, because demand for geographic data is booming. Right now if you enter an address on a web site like MapQuest or Google Maps, it'll usually show you the correct city block, but it'll point to the correct house less than half the time. Don Cooke, an executive from the mapping company TeleAtlas, says the Census Bureau's database would immediately solve that problem, and he'd like to use it.
Mr. DON COOKE (TeleAtlas): The laws basically say the intellectual property generated by the government belongs to us citizens, and so I'd like to get it. Why? Because I don't want to spend the money to go out and compile it.
CHARLES: Many local governments also don't have the money to assemble that information. But they'd love to turn to that map of each home when they face emergencies like floods and forest fires. But also just collecting taxes.
For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.