DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is 2015, meaning we are halfway between census years. The next decennial U.S. Census - that's the big one done at the beginning of each decade - is coming in 2020. And it will be the first one offered online. Census officials have a lot of work ahead to make sure everyone can take part. And they'll get an idea of how much work as the Census Bureau starts a trial run today. From Georgia Public Broadcasting, Sarah McCammon reports.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: The sun isn't quite up, but the Reverend Thurmond Tillman is already on the road.
THURMOND TILLMAN: I don't get up before dawn often, but when I get up, it's pretty much an all-day journey.
MCCAMMON: Tillman's main gig is at First African Baptist Church in Savannah, where he's pastored for more than thirty years. But for several months this year, he's also working for the U.S. Census Bureau. In his black sedan, Tillman is crisscrossing coastal Georgia and South Carolina. His job - to meet with just about anyone who will have him, like a group of public school principals in Jasper County, S.C.
TILLMAN: It is 2015, so I know you're looking at me like, well, what are you here? It's a census test.
MCCAMMON: Tillman makes his pitch, reminding the group that census data is used to make sure the region gets proper representation in Congress as well as federal funding for a host of local needs. He asks for help getting the word out to students who can, in turn, reach their parents.
TILLMAN: We know in many cases it will be your actual students that will be assisting in getting the census done because they can get on the computer and get it done...
MCCAMMON: Young people will be key, Tillman says, because the census test, like the real thing in 2020, will be primarily online. Paper will still be an option, but the Census Bureau believes it can save $5 billion on things like data collection and processing.
JOHN THOMPSON: 2020 is going to be fundamentally different than any census we've ever taken before.
MCCAMMON: That's Census Director John Thompson. Like older incarnations of the U.S. Census, people who respond online will be assigned a household ID number matched to their home address. Thompson says there's still plenty to figure out, like how to reach traditionally hard-to-count groups and how to motivate people to take the Internet-based survey.
THOMPSON: What we hope to learn in this test is really about the accuracy of Internet responses. So we're going to be analyzing the data to really assess the accuracy of it.
MCCAMMON: The census ran a smaller test in and around Washington, D.C., last year. Another, in Maricopa County, Ariz., is looking at how to follow-up with people who don't respond. Thompson says the census chose the Savannah area for its economic and racial diversity and its urban and rural mix. In Jasper County, School Superintendent Vashti Washington suggests reaching out to local phone companies for help spreading the message to older residents.
VASHTI WASHINGTON: Especially for our senior citizens, a lot of them are not technologically savvy, and they are afraid of the technology. So with identifying them through the phone system I think that that would help.
MCCAMMON: Another challenge, census officials say, is planning for an Internet-based survey that's still five years away at a time when technology is evolving quickly. Rick Hutley is the director of the analytics program at the University of the Pacific.
RICK HUTLEY: But I think one of the biggest challenges is to cast off your understanding of the world as you know it today, and that's really hard to do.
MCCAMMON: While a lot will change by 2020, Hutley says he expects social media to play an important role in encouraging participation. The Census Bureau is using social media and traditional advertising to get the word out about the Savannah census test. It runs through the end of May. For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon in Savannah.
GREENE: And the census count here in this studio is two. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm one of them - David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm the other - Renee Montagne.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.