6 custom made cookies inspired by the 2020 Census
Custom Census cookies designed by Jasmine Cho, CEO of Yummyholic

A Sweet Recipe for Rocking the Census 2020

Cookies, Data, and Libraries

Todd Smith
Department of Innovation & Performance
5 min readNov 13, 2019


April 1st, 2020 marks Census Day. If you are like me and have never have completed the Census or work in the civic innovation space, keep reading. This is a primer on what is at stake in the 2020 Census. It describes how we used the Inclusive Innovation Meetup to raise awareness, engage citizens, and mobilize action. We share a formula to employ in your own community.

Why the Census Matters

Political Power

Political representation relies on population numbers. To establish population growth, or “enumerate”, the Constitution mandates that a Census, or official survey is taken every ten years to determine this political representation, which equates power. Take Pennsylvania, for instance, which will lose one seat in the House of Representatives over the next decade due to population decline since 2010. (Fewer people, less representation.) Conversely, positive growth in Texas’ population means the state will gain three congressional seats over the next decade, which translates to more political weight.

Map of the United States projecting the chnage in congressional seats for each state
These estimates do not account for a potential undercount

Federal Funding

Funding decisions on critical equity issues like housing, healthcare, seniors, environment, vacant homes, transportation, veteran care, and much more, are also reliant on Census data. For every person who is not counted, our region risks losing $20,000 in federal funding over the next decade. An undercount is unlikely to affect the average college educated, professional Pittsburgher, but it can make or break the lives of for low-income populations, people of color, immigrants, people with limited English proficiency, and many more.

Cookie depicting a bus in a sink hole
The morning of the Meetup, a sinkhole in Downtown Pittsburgh swallowed a local bus, instantly becoming a viral meme and a reminder of the city’s aging infrastructure

The Risk of an Undercount

Many factors increase the chances of an undercount. A primary one was the citizenship question, which the Supreme Court ultimately blocked from appearing on the 2020 Census questionnaire, yet the campaign still succeeded to confuse people and undermine trust with immigrant communities. Another factor is digital access. 2020 is the first year in Census history people can complete the Census using a computer, tablet, or smartphone. However, not everyone has access to a computer or connectivity to the internet. With the Census Bureau facing budget constraints, traditional outreach efforts (door-to-door knocking, canvassing) are in jeopardy, which could further exacerbate the digital divide.

Achieving a Complete Count

The good news is efforts are underway to address these challenges. Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh have formed the Complete Count Committee (CCC), a cross-sector alliance to motivate a complete count through local outreach efforts. We were curious whether the Inclusive Innovation Meetup could serve as a useful outreach tool for the CCC.

The Meetup has over 1,400 members. It is made up of a diverse people motivated by civic innovation and thoughtful inclusion, who are likely to take the Census and serve as Census Champions in their community.

We organized a pilot at the end of October, partnering with the following organizations:

  • Beamdata, which provides communities with critical information and usable content (CCC)
  • The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which has resources and locations across the region that can narrow the digital gap (CCC)
  • Welcoming Pittsburgh, which provides language access guidance and many more resources to the immigrant communities. (CCC)
  • Yummyholic, which is an online bakery that teaches workshops on social justice and diversity through cookie activism.

One of our best Meetups! We usually get half of the people who RSVP to our Meetups. For this event, we had an 84% turnout! 42 new people joined the Meetup group, showing interest in the work we do and giving us permission to communicate with them in the future. Three people signed up to be “Census enumerators”, or Census door knockers (making $18.50/hr by the way!). We received great feedback about the format. Attendees mentioned how sitting at library tables while decorating cookies allowed for meaningful conversations with people they never met and created a safe space to ask questions to the CCC. We received a similar response from our CCC partners, who enjoyed getting to know people on a personal level during the cookie activity.

Design an activity that makes it easy to share user-generated content on social media.

A Census Engagement Recipe That Works

While we are happy about the success of the pilot, we would be remiss not to mention community events like Data Day, which also has engaged the public in creative and meaningful ways. Therefore, the following recipe is meant to be a general formula for Census field engagement.

We welcome you to share your feedback and invite you to share what strategies you have employed in your community, in the comment section below.

  1. Seek partnerships. Expand your sphere of influence by partnering with organizations across government, non-profits, and service providers. (When possible, pay them for their time)
  2. Find a storyteller. People pay attention to stories. Beamdata is an excellent example that tells stories through data visualization and community-centered content.
  3. Host the event in a public space. Libraries are perfect because they are familiar to many communities, provide accessible areas, and are usually near public transport.
  4. Plan a fun activity. People tend to open up in group settings. Invite people to learn through the process of making and exercising creativity.
  5. Make it social. Design an activity that can translate into user-generated content. Empower people to move the conversation online (social media) and educate their friends and family.
  6. Invite a Census representative. Have them answer specific questions about the Census and talk about employment opportunities.
  7. Order food. No matter when your event is during the day, people are always hungry. (When possible, order from local businesses)
  8. Provide language access. Make sure you make it easy for everyone to participate regardless of their English proficiency. Provide ASL interpretation when requested.
  9. Offer childcare. Don’t limit participation because people have to take of their children. Even better, make the event kid-friendly.
  10. Publish your event online. We used Meetup and linked it to a Facebook event. You can go with Eventbrite, but we recommend Meetup as a community-building tool.
  11. Write about it. Whether you share photos on social media or write a blog. Give people the chance to learn about your event, and remember to feature your partners.
  12. Repeat

Inclusive Innovation is an ongoing initiative of the City of Pittsburgh aimed to foster equity across Pittsburgh through cross-sector partnerships and meaningful community conversations that lead to action. The best way to stay informed about our events and work is by signing up for our newsletter and joining our Meetup.



Todd Smith
Department of Innovation & Performance

Building community engagement platforms and changing the way government communicates services and value at the City of Pittburgh