Small Daily Exposes Census Glitch: Oshkosh (Wis.) Northwestern Uncovers Flawed 1990 Census Software

By Giobbe, Dorothy | Editor & Publisher, September 2, 1995 | Go to article overview

Small Daily Exposes Census Glitch: Oshkosh (Wis.) Northwestern Uncovers Flawed 1990 Census Software


Giobbe, Dorothy, Editor & Publisher


AT FIRST, IT seemed like a small glitch.

Professor Ed Sylvester of Arizona State University was using a U.S. Census Bureau CD-ROM to coach a roomful of reporters at the Oshkosh (Wis. Northwestern about computer-assisted reporting.

But as they manipulated the data, the group realized that some of the census numbers couldn't possibly be accurate. For example, data on the CD-ROM put the total population of Milwaukee city at 115,400. The actual figure is approximately 625,000.

"I thought either there's a mistake here, or there's a really good story," Sylvester said. "That's the virtue of databases; they help you spot trends

A little more digging, and a trip by Sylvester to Census Bureau headquarters in Maryland, uncovered a scoop: 5,000 of the CD-ROMs with 1990 census data contained flawed software. Even bigger: While the Census Bureau had been aware of the problem for years, it had made no effort to correct the problem, and only a half-hearted effort to notify the public.

Reporters from the Northwestern jumped on the case and turned out a front-page story. Accompanying art used color graphics to illustrate the software problem.

According to the Northwestern investigation, the faulty software jumbled population numbers during downloading from the CD-ROM. In all, figures for areas, defined by the Census Bureau as Metropolitan Statistical Areas, in 19 states were affected.

The Northwestern took what might have been a short item about an obscure software glitch and drove home the relevancy to readers: A wide variety of consumers use census information as a planning tool. Businesses use it to decide where to open a new location. Governments use it to determine how much money programs get.

The fact that the Census Bureau knew there was a problem but made no real effort to fix it, other than posting a correction on an obscure bulletin board, gave the story a bigger punch. …

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