Make youth count An Alief Early College IDEAS Academy Project

Engaging Students to Address the 2020 Census Undercount

An Initiative of IDEAS Academy at Houston Community College's West Houston Institute

IDEAS Academy at Houston Community College's West Houston Institute provides students with opportunities to develop the mindsets and skill sets used by innovators, designers, and entrepreneurs to enable them to become leaders in today's digital and global society.

For the past two years, IDEAS Academy has partnered with the Houston Mayor's Office to provide HCC students with a real-world design challenge with local and global impacts.

2020 Census: Erase the Undercount

In Spring 2019, Mayor Sylvester Turner challenged HCC students to design ways to inspire schools and communities to participate in the upcoming 2020 Decennial Census and help erase Houston's historic undercount. Full participation in the Census would provide billions in additional federal funding and increase the number of elective representatives in the region.

Challenge Accepted

IDEAS Academy's Alief Early College students, along with traditional HCC students in Technical Writing and Government classes, accepted the challenge and worked throughout the semester to develop communication strategies targeted at specific populations, including youth aged 14-19, international residents, and minority communities.

2020 Census Design Challenge Brief

Phase I. Explore the Problem

IDEAS Academy used a three phase design process to address the challenge: Explore the Problem, Imagine Solutions, and Create the Change. The Exploration Phase began with research and open-ended discovery and concludes with a more clearly defined problem statement. Students learn a variety of methods for gaining understanding about the systems–people, cultures, built and natural environments in which their design challenge exists. For the Census Challenge, understanding who was not responding to the Census was most important to creating solutions.

Research: Understanding the Census & the Undercount

Lack of knowledge and understanding about the Decennial Census is a fundamental barrier to participation. Students began by researching the problem–learning more about the Decennial Census and the impact it has for the region both in terms of federal funding and elective representation, as well as studying the available data on the demographics of their own communities using tools like ROAM to understand what underlying issues might contribute to the undercount.

Survey: Lunar New Year Houston

Event Hashtag: #CanWeCountOnYou?

Participation in existing community events was identified as a way to engage people and address the general lack of awareness and understanding surrounding the upcoming 2020 Census.

HCC students were provided with a pavilion tent at the 2019 Lunar New Year Houston festival by Glenda Joe, event organizer and Erase the Undercount Director.

The goal was to prototype some early messaging and to learn more about people's attitudes and beliefs about the Census. Students created several fun activities to generate interest with all ages at the event. They also developed a survey given to adults to gather insights from participants.

Engaging Through Fun

Students attracted festival-goers with informational games and activities and provided fact sheets about the upcoming 2020 Census to educate visitors.

Learning from the Community

Students also conducted a short survey developed in Qualtrics to better understand participants attitudes and beliefs about the Census, they community priorities, as well as their preferred information and communication channels. Students had 127 respondents complete their survey.

More Photos from Lunar New Year Houston

"Can We Count on You?" Early Messaging Concepts

The messaging for Lunar New Year Houston used a double entendre meant to capture people's attention and prompt a call to action. A piggybank was used also as a double meaning for the "Year of the Pig" as well as the financial impact of the Census.

The choice of themes and colors was designed to show a sensitivity to and celebration of the Asian culture at the heart of the Lunar New Year festival. Connecting to the diverse cultures that make up Alief and Greater Houston were important touchstones for many students who participated in the challenge. Once recognized, this concept would be further developed in subsequent activities.

Lunar New Year Banner
"Can We Count on You?" T-Shirt

Key Insights

  • Recognition and celebration of the diverse cultures found within Houston are an important way to connect and engage with communities.
  • Gamification of the information works and engaged families, young and old. This is important since people may not be interested in the Census itself due to lack of knowledge about its importance.
  • 65% of people surveyed claimed to be familiar with the Census, but 64% stated their household had never completed it or they didn't know if they had completed it before. Lack of awareness may be a stronger contributor to the undercount than fear or mistrust.

Activity: Targeted Surveys

Alief Early College High School Survey

Students further iterated the survey used for the Lunar New Year event and distributed it to Alief Early College High School in late February. Over 240 students from their school responded, representing a little over 50% of the student population.

HCC Technical Writing Community Surveys

HCC Technical Writing students created a general survey that could be given to their peers, as well as their families, friends, and communities. This activity was meant to provide personal insights about the attitudes and beliefs of those in their immediate sphere of influence towards the Census.

Activity: Persona Development

Personas are a powerful design method used to provide creative teams with authentic profiles of the kinds of people who are likely to be users of their solutions. Designers use personas in the early stages of their work before they have actual users to test their ideas.

Based other research findings, IDEAS Academy students developed unique personas representing young people, women, ethnic groups, and specific communities. These personas were used to summarize findings from Exploration Phase as the design work moved to the ideation stage.

Click on an image to enlarge

Phase II: Imagine Solutions

The Imagination Phase of the design process is concerned with generating ideas that can be developed into workable solutions to address the challenge. Students draw on their deeper understanding of the context within which the problem is embedded, starting with a proliferation of ideas and experiments as they move towards identifying the concepts that provide the best chance of success.

Activity: Top Ten Census Facts

Recognizing a need to address the basic facts about the 2020 Census, students developed a Top Ten list of topics they decided were the most relevant and meaningful for students.

Activity: Ideation of Deliverables

IDEAS Academy utilized the West Houston Institute's Collaboratorium to brainstorm ideas for each of the deliverables for their youth communication campaign.

Brainstorming results from Alief Early College students

Activity: AECHS Multicultural Night


In addition to participating in community events, established school events and activities can be another way to promote awareness about the 2020 Census.

Alief Early College students took what they had learned from their involvement with the Lunar New Year Houston event and put together a table at their high school's annual Multicultural Night in March 2019. Their goal was to recognize that all of the cultures in a community are important and that by aligning this fact with participation in the Census, people may better understand what this civic duty can represent.

Partner with School Administration

AECHS Principal Brandi Brotherton and her staff are all aware of the challenge IDEAS Academy students are designing for this semester. This has enabled the cohort to get traction quickly on their activities related to this initiative at the school.

Partner with Student Organizations

IDEAS Academy has learned to collaborate with active student groups, including leadership organizations as well as interest groups on campus. These can be important partnerships that help connect activities across campus.

Photos from #OurCulturesCount booth at AECHS Multicultural Night
Banner Used for Multicultural Night
Top Ten Facts Flyer Distributed at Multicultural Night

Key Insights

  • Create individualized communications that use authentic voices from the community to connect with people.
  • Take advantage of free tools to create social media posts, flyers, and posters to visually represent information about the Census in a way that is relevant to current tastes.
  • To engage youth, find existing school events and activities and find ways to participate - align your presentation with the theme of the activity.

IDEAS Campaign Canvas

To wrap-up the Imagination Phase, students were asked to summarize the elements of their awareness campaign using the IDEAS Campaign Canvas, a modified version of the Business Model Canvas focused on social innovation. This document was used to clarify various aspects of their proposal through a process of critical reflection. Like the personas, the Campaign Canvas helped focus activities as design teams moved into the final stages of their creative process.

Phase III. Create the Change!

The final stage of the IDEAS design process is where the concepts that best address the challenge are developed into working prototypes that can be launched into the world to be tested with real users and further further refined through a process of iterative design.

Early College students took what they had learned from the previous design stages to create a brand and concept for a student initiative called, "Make Youth Count," to provide high school students with a means to organize and lead youth events at their schools to engage their peers, families and neighbors in learning about the 2020 Census and the importance it plays in their communities.

Brand & Logo

Our lead brand and graphic designer developed a look and feel for the "Make Youth Count" logo that would be relevant for students and could easily be incorporated into other communications for specific activities and events. And "Make Youth Count" also stands for Make "YOU" Count - it was important for young people to know that each person counted as individual as well as what could be accomplished by youth collectively.


Our merchandising team used the profiles developed in our student personas to develop a line of items that would be desirable and used by students to promote the "Make Youth Count" initiative and server as reminders and conversation starters once the Census begins in 2020. Items included t-shirts, keychains, magnets, cups, lanyards, pop sockets, and phone cases. The team used IDEAStudio to design and bring several concepts to life pictured below.

Sample Merchandising

Handouts & Posters

Census Palooza Student Event

Alief Early College students closed out the semester with a pilot student event called "Census Palooza" where over 150 high school students participated in fun and engaging activities where they competed for prizes as they learned more about the census, its importance for their community, and how they can get involved to help get a complete count in their neighborhoods.

Concluding Insights

1. Develop Youth Leadership to Energize Efforts

Participation of youth in Houston's 2020 Census efforts will be critical for reducing the undercount. Informed young people will be passionate advocates who can communicate the importance of participation for their families and communities.

2. Find Authentic Voices to Create Connections

Personalized messaging that speaks to specific audiences within the region can be a powerful way to create broader awareness about the 2020 Census. Having authentic voices connect the Census' impact to specific values within a community will engage people more effectively than a generalized approach. This method may be especially useful in a region as diverse and diffuse as Houston.

3. Use Participatory Design to Empower Youth

Using a participatory design approach, such as that used by IDEAS Academy, to address the challenge of the undercount can provide communities, schools, and organizations with an effective way to develop relevant communication that speaks to their unique experiences. Providing groups with the agency to promote the Census themselves supports the general empowerment of communities beyond 2020.


All student work related to this project was guided and supported by the following individuals:

  • Jordan Carswell, Program Director IDEAStudio & Academy
  • Alexandra Almestica, Public Service Librarian
  • Glenda Joe, Executive Director, Erase the Undercount

More Information

For more information about the project or to join this initiative, contact Make Youth Count, makeyouthcount@gmail.com. All content is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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