U.S. Census Bureau Facilitates Online Responses through Scalable, Resilient Web Solution on AWS


Every 10 years, the United States Census Bureau (Census Bureau) conducts a census to determine the allocation of billions of dollars of federal funding and apportion congressional seats. For the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau wanted to migrate what was previously a fully manual, paper-based process to the cloud to improve the ease and reliability of responses and scale its data collection efficiently.

The Census Bureau migrated from its on-premises infrastructure to Amazon Web Services (AWS), achieving greater scalability to handle millions of users while also maintaining strict security. Using AWS GovCloud (US), which lets customers host sensitive data and architect secure cloud solutions that address stringent US government security and compliance requirements, the Census Bureau delivered a secure, reliable user experience, reduced costs, and achieved a 99.98 percent response rate using an online self-response tool.

Marble columns, and stairs background, Government Building

AWS GovCloud (US) provided maximum flexibility and availability. Going from multiple periods of downtime throughout the year to zero was by far the biggest benefit of the solution.”

Zack Schwartz
IT Service Management Office Division Chief, U.S. Census Bureau

Migrating from a Paper-Based System to the Cloud

An essential public sector agency, the Census Bureau wanted to improve the accuracy of its data collection for the 2020 Census and make it simpler for citizens to respond. To accomplish these goals, it decided to facilitate online responses for the first time. But the Census Bureau realized that its existing infrastructure couldn’t facilitate the secure, reliable online engagement with users that it wanted to deliver at scale. “We were driving traffic to a website that was sitting on premises, and we were concerned it would crash or deliver a bad user experience,” says Zack Schwartz, division chief of the Census Bureau’s IT Service Management Office.

The Census Bureau wanted census respondents to feel confident in the security and reliability of a new online experience. “The 2020 Census was an important launchpad for the future,” says Kristin Galemore, senior advisor of the Census Bureau’s IT Service Management Office. “When it’s time for the 2030 Census, we want families to remember that the 2020 Census was safe, simple, and confidential online.” In addition, the online tool needed to meet the needs of census data analysts. “Thousands of statisticians and economists need to be able to access the data and perform analysis quickly,” says Schwartz.

The Census Bureau had been using AWS for 3 years to modernize its data collection system and used this foundation on AWS to build its solution for the 2020 Census. “We recognized that the cloud computing industry has excelled at addressing our challenges,” says Schwartz. “It was time to start adopting it.”

Scaling a Reliable and Secure System on AWS

The Census Bureau used the US-East and US-West Regions of AWS GovCloud (US) to improve the availability and security of its systems across the country. From March to October 2020, its website saw as many as 600,000 concurrent users. Yet during the entire period, the Census Bureau experienced no downtime. “AWS GovCloud (US) provided maximum flexibility and availability,” says Schwartz. “Going from multiple periods of downtime throughout the year to zero was by far the biggest benefit of the solution.”

With no downtime, the Census Bureau was able to maximize its collection of self-responses online and, in turn, improve the accuracy of its data. “Our most reliable data comes directly from respondents,” says Galemore. To encourage online responses, the Census Bureau ran promotions with national partners; several of these resulted in over one million daily visits. Multiple promotions went live on Census Day, April 1, causing an influx of four million visitors. Even at peak volume, when it saw over seven million visits in 1 day, the Census Bureau’s scalable, reliable cloud environment was ready to handle the substantial traffic. “We could drive all of that simultaneous traffic to our website with confidence,” says Galemore. “We didn’t need to do a huge amount of preparation work or bring on additional staff to manage it.” The site successfully handled over 110 million visits throughout the duration of the census.

Using the power of Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2)—which provides secure, resizable compute capacity in the cloud—the Census Bureau was able to receive and begin processing the online responses it collected instantly. To store responses securely and accurately and scale with ease to support spikes in volume, the Census Bureau used Amazon DynamoDB, a key-value and document database that delivers fast performance at scale. Through these services, Census Bureau staff can spend more time on outreach, educating respondents on the importance of the census and driving self-response numbers even higher. “Implementing our tools in the cloud has freed up staff who would otherwise be conducting maintenance or addressing system failures,” says Galemore.

The Census Bureau still sent paper surveys to areas with limited access to the internet. But by delivering a successful online experience, the Census Bureau was able to achieve a record-setting response rate, accounting for 99.98 percent of all housing units and addresses nationwide. The online tool also resulted in significant cost savings for the Census Bureau. “With more than 300 million US residents, even a 1 percent increase in self-response can save millions of dollars,” says Galemore. In total, the Census Bureau estimates that it saved approximately $5.3 billion using the online solution for the 2020 Census.

Looking Forward to a Decade of Improvements

Following the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau began analyzing its successes and identifying opportunities for improvements. “Using AWS helped the Census Bureau prove what’s possible in a cloud environment,” says Galemore. Using the support of AWS, the Census Bureau is training its staff to be proficient with cloud infrastructure. “We’ve become a workforce that understands AWS,” says Schwartz. “And we’ve built an architecture that sets us up for future success.”

The Census Bureau hopes to replicate its success in the 2030 Census and inspire others. “I’m hopeful that our success will be an example to other government agencies that, with the right planning and implementation, they can deliver great user experiences using cloud technology,” says Galemore.

About the U.S. Census Bureau

The U.S. Census Bureau works to provide high-quality data about the people and economy of the United States. It performs hundreds of surveys per year and conducts the Decennial Census of Population and Housing for the federal government.

Benefits of AWS

  •  Scaled to support 600,000 concurrent users
  • Achieved a response rate of 99.98% using an online self-response tool
  • Saved an estimated $5.3 billion
  • Delivered a secure online experience for over 110 million visitors
  • Avoided downtime
  • Freed time for staff to spend on outreach instead of system maintenance
  • Received and started processing online responses instantly

AWS Services Used

AWS GovCloud (US)

AWS GovCloud (US) gives government customers and their partners the flexibility to architect secure cloud solutions that comply with the FedRAMP High baseline; the DOJ’s Criminal Justice Information Systems (CJIS) Security Policy; U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR); Export Administration Regulations (EAR); Department of Defense (DoD) Cloud Computing Security Requirements Guide (SRG) for Impact Levels 2, 4 and 5; FIPS 140-2; IRS-1075; and other compliance regimes.

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Amazon DynamoDB

Amazon DynamoDB is a key-value and document database that delivers single-digit millisecond performance at any scale. It's a fully managed, multi-region, multi-active, durable database with built-in security, backup and restore, and in-memory caching for internet-scale applications. DynamoDB can handle more than 10 trillion requests per day and can support peaks of more than 20 million requests per second.

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Amazon EC2

Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) is a web service that provides secure, resizable compute capacity in the cloud. It is designed to make web-scale cloud computing easier for developers.

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