Florida's cloud-based Census app aims to find "missed" Floridians

Of all the uses of clouds, both public and private, perhaps the most technologically sophisticated and potentially revolutionary cloud is the one being developed by the Florida House of Representatives.  It is a Web-based, Microsoft-cloud-driven, Silverlight-Bing-enabled app called www.myfloridacensus.gov .  And it works quite well, thank you.

First, the problem behind the solution.  Just because the Census happens every ten years does not mean there is nothing going on in the intervening years.  Far from it: Cities, counties, states and the Census Bureau itself are constantly upgrading their residential address databases and maps.  This is because entire communities can (and in Florida and elsewhere, do) spring up in the years between the Censuses.  Or is that Censi?  Whatever.

These neighborhoods need to be tallied and their streets added to the Bureau's geospatial files.  This process is called Local Update of Census Addresses, or LUCA.  And LUCA is an essential part of the run-up to the Census.  For without it, entire subdivisions would be undercounted, or possibly not counted at all.

This problem is most acute in fast-growing areas of the nation, especially Florida.  Florida is historically "undercounted" in the Census.  Though the undercount was halved in Florida in 2000, it still represents tens -- perhaps hundreds -- of thousands of Floridians who are "missed" by the Census.

There are numerous ways to verify and cross-check to see if a community was "missed" by the Bureau.  One such way is what Florida did in 2000; namely, engaged a direct mail firm and mailed letters to underperforming Census tracts and asked people to call a toll-free number if they were "missed."

This was excellent, but it was reactionary and was slow by today's standards.  So the Florida House of Representatives this year moved forward with an interactive Website which actually displays blocks, neighborhoods, even entire subdivisions in red, where the Bureau has no record of residences (but the overhead photography of the bikes in the yards and the barbecue grills would seem to confirm the presence of life there).

Bob West, the House's reapportionment guru, spends a considerable amount of his time analyzing data from divergent sources such as driver license files, property appraiser files, and voting records.  He creates a gigunda database of residential addresses and matches that verified file against the Census Bureau's final LUCA file that is published to states immediately prior to the start of the Census.

The simple rule of thumb:  Any address in the House's database that is not in the Bureau's database is a potential missed count.  So that information goes to the Bureau, along with entreaties that the Bureau recheck its data and get out there and enumerate those "missing" homes.

But it certainly would be helpful if actual residents of those homes also listed their status as either counted or missed, which creates yet another mode of verification.  Hence the Florida House's Website.

Now as many of you know, I am the CIO of the Florida House.  That is in my bio here at Computerworld and I formally disclose that fact here.  But the truth is, outside of mentioning the possibility of placing this solution in the cloud, I have had little to do with the nuts-and-bolts of placing this solution within Microsoft's Azure cloud.  That has come from some very talented developers who work elsewhere within the House.  Come to think of it, my principal Webslinger did design the site's look and feel, we did convey project management skills, and my information architect checks in as needed on the project, so I guess we did do more than just cheerlead.

And that is part of the lesson here.  CIOs need to be heavily invested (and ultimately, supportive) of the uses of such clouds.  In the case of my shop, placing this Census solution "in the cloud" meant I did not have to buy a bunch of new servers, even though we are heavily virtualized already.  Microsoft's cloud licensing and Bing licensing models are much more reasonable than buying MS Server and SQL Server licenses.  I do not have to worry about DR, outside of backing up our data that we post to the cloud.  Since we pay "by the drink," we do not have to overbuy capacity within our existing data center.  Indeed, we have great elasticity that we would not have had otherwise, virtualized or not.

All told, we have saved meny tens of thousands of dollars with this solution.  And every minute we spend on this solution gets us smarter for the future.  "The future" for us might mean placing our bread-and-butter .NET apps in the cloud.  And it certainly means we are closer to offering such things as "Online DIY Redistricting" for greater transparency, when reapportionment occurs in 2012. That is a goal of incoming Speaker Dean Cannon of the Orlando area.

Back to the reason for the app.  Floridians who feel that they were "missed" by the Census can access the Florida House's cloud app at www.myfloridacensus.gov . They can see if their community is recognized by the Census, or was "missed."  And counted or no, they can officially certify their status by filling in their information within a form, which is routinely forwarded to the Census Bureau.  But time is rapidly running out, and the Bureau will stop enumerating door-to-door very soon. 

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