Making Sense of the Census

The U.S. Census, written into the U.S. Constitution and first administered by Thomas Jefferson, faces an important milestone in 2020: the first digital census, where respondents can respond to the decennial survey online.

But the challenge for the Census Bureau is much broader today—how does an institution as old as the country reshape itself for the 21st century?

The 1790 Census (left) and a 2010 Census Form (right)


That is where we come in. Over the spring semester, our team of Harvard students will explore ways to make Census data more useful.

As students in DPI-663, a Harvard Kennedy School field class on Technology and Innovation in Government taught by Professor Nick Sinai, we’ll be working closely with a team from the Census, including Chief Data Officer Zach Whitman and Senior UX Advisor Drew Zachary.

Our student team has a diverse set of experiences and backgrounds:


Tony Thumpasery is a Senior at Harvard College with past experience as a product manager in the technology industry. Previously, Tony worked as a Product Management Consultant at the performance management software startup Palatine Analytics and as a Product Manager at the social gaming company Zynga. After graduation, Tony will join Twitter as an Associate Product Manager. While he is sad that he will have to leave his Harvard friends in a few months, he is looking forward to experiencing California weather.


Arjun Bisen is a Fulbright scholar and Master of Public Policy student at Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to starting at Harvard, he worked as an Australian diplomat and aid program manager for seven years, focusing on Asian geopolitics, trade negotiations, managing large UN aid programs, and drafting Australia’s cyber and digital strategy. He also undertook a diplomatic posting in Cambodia. In his spare time, he enjoys art exhibitions and watching basketball.


Ayush Chakravarty is a Master of Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School. Previously, he worked at Yahoo as an Advertising Policy Analyst and as a consultant for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. He holds a BA in Economics and Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley, and is slowly adjusting to life in the Boston winter. In his free time, he enjoys traveling, drinking season beer, and reading old maps.


Daniel Drabik is an Master of Public Administration student at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is a software developer with over a decade of experience working at startups and political campaigns. Previously, he worked on the Data Infrastructure Team of the Hillary Clinton Campaign, and he was the tech lead on Kickstarter’s international expansion, launching the company in their first nine international markets. In his spare time, he enjoys playing volleyball, making cocktails, and tinkering on his soon-to-be-released iPhone game.


Carissa Chen is a Harvard College student with experience in legal technology startups, policy research, and non-profit management. She’s working as a founding member of a start-up applying technology to address women’s rights issues, a research assistant for former Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow, and a director for the non-profit Angel Heart International. In her free time, she likes to paint and write poetry. Her art and writing have previously been exhibited in the Hall of Nations at the Kennedy Center and the White House:

Why make Census data easier to use?

The U.S. Census Bureau holds among the largest collections of information on people and businesses in the country. In addition to the Decennial population survey, the Bureau also collects hundreds of valuable demographic and economic surveys each year, all for public use.  

But like many institutions that hold a wealth of diverse data, the U.S. Census Bureau website isn’t always easy to access and use—in part because of the complexity of the information collected.

In fact, a student team from DPI-663 explored this subject in 2016, focusing on making income data easier to understand. Check out their user research, prototype, and final recommendations. We hope to build off their findings, while doing our own original research about how various groups use Census data.

Next Steps

The first phase of the class is focused on understanding what people need.  We want to initially focus on three groups of people:

  • Academic researchers, who help society make sense of census data;
  • Community advocates, who use census data to apply for grants to support their own community; and
  • Software developers, who use census data to build useful digital tools.

In the upcoming weeks, our team will conduct interviews to understand how each of these groups use census data.  Later in the class, we’ll brainstorm some ideas, build and test some rudimentary prototypes, and develop recommendations for senior Census leadership.

We’re excited to get started!

Tony Thumpasery, Arjun Bisen, Ayush Chakravarty, Daniel Drabik, and Carissa Chen