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Q&A: Census Bureau exec describes handheld plan for 2010

The agency has embarked on a $600M plan to automate census data collection

April 6, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The U.S. Census Bureau signed a contract this week with Harris Corp. for a $600 million project to automate data collection in the 2010 census (see "Census Bureau to deploy a half-million wireless handhelds"). About 500,000 customized pocket-size computers from High Tech Computer Corp. in Taiwan will be deployed to census takers who go door to door. Edwin B. Wagner Jr., project manager for the field data collection automation contract at the Census Bureau, talked to Computerworld today about the effort. Excerpts from that interview follow:

Obviously, handhelds have saved time and improved accuracy for many field forces in recent years. Have you quantified what you expect to save in this project? I can’t say the project will save exactly x millions of dollars, but introducing this helps us with data collection. In the 2000 census, we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 million nonresponding households, where we didn’t receive their census forms by mail. That meant taking out paper questionnaires, and then taking data off the questionnaires later in a separate step. And millions of returns were mailed back to us after workers started making house calls. So, this new automation allows us to update census enumerators with new mail returns via wireless before the worker reaches the house. And, we don’t have to process the paper. We will save millions of dollars, no doubt.

On what base? In 2000, we spent $6 billion on the census, for everything, not just data collection. In 2010, it’s expected to be $11 billion for the entire 10-year cycle.

Why such a large number of handhelds, half a million? Well, we have millions of households to visit, but we also can’t wait for the data under legal mandates -- so we put a lot of people on the streets. The census is always held on April 1, by law, and must be finished by Dec. 31 of that year. And then, one year later, on April 1, 2011, we’re required to deliver all the information to the states for use in redistricting. The process can’t wait.

Are the census takers going to use the devices to ask a ton of questions? If so, how might people react to a census taker using a machine? Did you consider how intrusive it might feel to them? It’s a short-form questionnaire, only seven questions. We’re not really worried about intrusiveness. It’s not really any different than holding paper in that sense. People are getting used to it with meter readers using mobile technology and the UPS guy making deliveries. Nothing to my knowledge in our 2004 and 2006 field tests with handhelds shows a problem. We’ve tested with 200,000 actual homes in Austin, Texas, two counties in southern Georgia and part of New York City.

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