U.S. Census tech makeover includes 'oasis' for innovation

Census Bureau aims to improve methods for developing, deploying technology after 2010 Census problems

The U.S. Census Bureau is in the midst of a tech makeover following criticism of its technology deployments leading up to the 2010 Census, ranging from problems with its payroll processing system to its handhelds.

The problems resulted in soaring costs and caustic criticism from lawmakers.

The makeover aims to consolidate operations as well as enable the bureau's IT staff to be more creative and inventive.

"We are instituting key reforms in information technology management," said Robert Groves, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, at a hearing last week before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee to review the 2010 census and what's ahead for 2020.

Some of the reforms outlined by Groves were expected. They include consolidating two major data centers into one, and reducing 52 storage systems to seven. The agency claims that this storage consolidation is saving it $1 million. The Obama administration has made consolidation a priority.

But the Census Bureau is also changing how it manages IT. It is getting away from "first-use perfection" in systems development, Groves told lawmakers. For the 2010 census, "we were developing critical systems weeks before their use," and "important weaknesses" were discovered in production, he said.

One effort includes establishing a place for its IT staff to generate ideas and test technologies.

The Center for Applied Technology, as it's been named, will serve "as a focal point for bringing entrepreneurial-minded staff, emerging technologies, and pressing business problems facing the Census together," said the agency, in response to written questions from Computerworld seeking more detail about the IT plans, following Grove's testimony.

"Once the physical space is redesigned, it will serve as an oasis that will inspire Census staff to think creatively at an enterprise level to solve some of the more pertinent issues facing the Bureau," the agency said in its response. The center "employs a 'think tank' concept where Census staff can work directly with corporate leaders in technology, key members of other government agencies, and academia."

Examples of technology needs that this center is now working on include virtual desktops, enterprise content, collaboration, and knowledge management, as well as secure printing and mobile devices.

The Census Bureau is also making greater use of public and private clouds.

The agency says its website is using Akamai Technologies and its global network of 84,000 servers to cache multimedia content to speed its delivery and handle traffic "no matter how large the audience." The Census Bureau is also using Akamai's infrastructure-as-a-service offering.

At its busiest, the 2010.census.gov website attracted 4 million to 5 million hits per week, about double the traffic of the bureau's legacy website, Census.gov. Akamai "was insurance against exceeding the bandwidth of the Census network and servers," the agency said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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