Census Bureau to deploy a half-million wireless handhelds

Census takers hope to reduce errors, time needed for 2010 census

U.S. census-takers will use wireless handheld computers in the 2010 census instead of pen and paper to save time and improve accuracy.

The U.S. Census Bureau yesterday agreed to purchase 500,000 mobile devices and related technology from Harris Corp. in Melbourne, Fla. The five-year pact, worth nearly $600 million, covers all aspects of the Census Bureau’s Field Data Collection Automation Project, according to the bureau and Harris.

“We are revolutionizing the census,” Census Bureau Director Louis Kincannon said in a statement announcing the contract award late last week. “The handheld computers are an integral part of a re-engineered 2010 Census.”

The pocket-size handhelds will run Windows Mobile 5.0 on hardware from High Tech Computer Corp. in Taiwan, said Bruce Buckley, director of Census business development for Harris. The specific model, still under development, will be based on consumer handheld technology that has been customized and made semirugged for Census use, Buckley said. It will have a 10-hour battery life to allow Census staffers to work all day. And it will include a cellular data radio that sends data to a Census office over a Sprint Nextel Corp. private network. A traditional phone line connection port will be custom-installed for backup connections instead of allowing flash cards to be inserted and removed.

Contrary to some early reports about the contract, there will be no voice capability -- a decision made to comply with government security requirements, Buckley said. All data collected at each home will be encrypted and stored on the device and transmitted over the private network immediately or at set intervals. If a census taker fails to send the data, the handheld will do so on its own. Census takers will also be able to receive data, such as advisories that say a resident has already filed a paper census survey and can be skipped, Buckley said. There will be no keyboard; data input will be primarily through use of a stylus tapping a color screen bright enough to be seen outside.

The contract with Harris covers IT infrastructure, support services, and hardware and software needed to support a network for almost 455 local Census offices around the country, according to the Census Bureau. Other vendors involved include Accenture, which will provide mobile device application development services, and Unisys Corp., which will provide field office automation equipment related to the mobile computing initiative. Dell Inc. will provide PCs and servers and Oracle Corp. will provide some enterprise software. Fairfax, Va.-based Headstrong Corp. will provide systems engineering expertise.

Buckley said Windows Mobile 5.0 was chosen primarily because it can run customized off-the-shelf applications Harris has experience with, including software for security and wireless data synchronization. “We chose a platform that gave us the best integration for custom applications,” Buckley said.

Craig Mathias, an analyst at The Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., said he had not heard of a larger wireless handheld deployment. Even though the size is important, he said Windows Mobile has been gaining ground as the “most important platform for handheld computing” for a while.

Buckley said he could not comment on why the Census Bureau chose Harris’ bid, but he said it was based on “best value” and not lowest cost.

A Census Bureau spokesman said eight government contractors initially offered bids, and finalists included Northrup Grumman and General Dynamics Corp., which joined with Electronic Data Systems Inc.

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