If you want to buy or lease real estate, find a broker. But if you just want to get a full picture of the real estate in a specific geographic area, then find the census enumerator that worked the block.
Enumerators walk from property to property, block by block, verifying addresses and sorting residential from commercial properties. They count apartment units, look for hidden units and conclude, in some cases, if a seemingly uninhabitable space is really some body’s home.
It’s a necessary, though time consuming job that legions of temporary workers perform nationwide every 10 years, in advance of the Decennial Census.
The task has remained virtually unchanged since the first US census in 1790. But the tools used to perform it have changed significantly–and the history of those changes effectively mirror the history of technological change.
When the first census was taken, slightly more than a year after George Washington became the nation’s first President, US marshals supervised assistants appointed to collect the data. The enumerators had no printed data sheets to guide them and had to provide their own supplies, including paper and pencils.
More than two centuries later, enumerators are using hand-held computers (HCCs) and GPS to plot, record and update the information on every possible living space in a significantly larger United States. It’s not the most sophisticated technology: the HCCs have little computing power. They’re slow and prone to intermittent freezes. As for the GPS, enumerators concur it’s not the best geographic positioning system on the market.
Even with its problems and glitches, the technology represents a huge advance over the days when every piece of data was collected by hand. It helps standardize the data and make it somewhat more reliable.
It’s useful…but it’s no substitute for the enumerators themselves. They still have to walk from property or property, counting, evaluating and using their intuition as much as their technology. It confirms what everyone in real estate already knows: technology is only as good as the judgment of those who use it.