Census workers to try out handhelds in field test Monday

Address verification to be sent to servers wirelessly

Starting Monday, 1,400 U.S. Census Bureau workers carrying wireless handheld computers will for the first time fan out across Fayetteville, N.C., and Stockton, Calif., to begin a seven-week dress rehearsal of the technology and the process.

The workers will use the handhelds to verify addresses and to add or delete them for homes that have been built or removed since the last census, replacing paper-based forms and maps used in the past, a census spokesman said.

The devices are equipped with GPS mapping technology and biometric security to gather the address information, which will then be transmitted wirelessly to a database, said officials at Harris Corp., the systems integrator on the project.

In the actual 2010 census, the bureau expects that 500,000 workers will carry handhelds for address canvassing operations, said Mike Murray, vice president of the census program for Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris. Over five years, the bureau plans to spend $600 million for the handhelds and related technology, which covers 13 data centers and nearly 500 field offices.

Murray and census officials appeared before a U.S. House subcommittee last week to urge elected officials to keep funding in place for the ambitious program in coming years, and to avoid the continuing budget resolutions that are commonplace in the fall as the fiscal year ends.

"We will incur major hardships if our funding stream is interrupted by continuing resolutions late in the decade," testified Preston Jay Waite, associate director for the decennial census of the U.S. Census Bureau.

"The biggest thing that I worry about is a continuing resolution at the end of this fiscal year. ... We cannot go any distance at all into fiscal '08 with [current year funding] without sort of derailing the train."

Census officials are seeking $1.2 billion in next year's budget, which begins Oct. 1, more than $300 million above the current level, according to census records.

Census officials have argued that the handhelds will reduce paper and costs while increasing the efficiency and accuracy of the counting process. In all, the 2010 census is expected to cost more than $11 billion, about twice the cost of the 2000 census, according to congressional testimony. Meanwhile, Harris estimates that the handhelds and related technology will bring $1 billion in savings in operating costs over four years.

The rehearsal will give Harris and census officials a chance to evaluate the handhelds for their usability, especially by a highly diverse workforce. "We tried to develop screens that were user-friendly and did significant testing of 18-to-80-year-olds from all backgrounds," Murray said an interview. "When you are hiring 500,000 people in 2010 so quickly, you can't be too picky with whom you are hiring, and they'll have all kinds of technology backgrounds."

In recent months, Harris and the census had planned to have the handhelds accessible with a password and a fingerprint scan but decided to rely only on the fingerprint scan, which simplifies matters for users and is still very secure, Murray said.

Workers will use a stylus to tap the screen of the device, working through up to 10 screen views to verify an address, Murray explained. A worker will operate from a database of the most recent addresses on a given street and will add or delete addresses, as needed, that are encountered there. Workers will tap in whether the address is a single-family home or an apartment and other information.

Using the wireless and GPS capabilities, the handheld will also allow the census worker to indicate on a GPS-generated map where the structure is located. The information, which is transmitted along with other data back to database servers, is important, Murray explained, since census data helps in the drawing of congressional maps. Knowing on which side of a street a house is located can determine the district in which it will be placed.

Harris worked with High Tech Computer Corp. in Taiwan, which custom-built a handheld for the census project based on many standard components. One component, the handheld's GPS antenna chip, was specifically chosen to be able to find GPS satellites on cloudy days and from inside a doorway where a worker might be taking information, Murray said. A common problem with some older GPS devices is that they are unable to find locations during overcast conditions, but Harris checked the handhelds in "all different environments and never had a problem with cloudy days," Murray said. "We hope we checked everything; at least that's the goal."

Harris also created a Field Data Collection Automation application for the handhelds that runs atop the native Windows Mobile 5.0 software and locks out many uses of Windows "to keep people off the Internet and from playing games," Murray added. The data generated by the census worker is encrypted on a secure digital card in the device and then transmitted almost in real time over a secure wireless network operated by Sprint Nextel, Murray said.

In a sense, the dress rehearsal will be a learning experience on a large scale that will help Harris and the census fine-tune the process. In training field workers for the dress rehearsal, some lessons were already learned, Murray said. Also, Harris will be able to see if its field office servers are the appropriate size to handle data sent to them during the dress rehearsal, he said.

Since the last census, bureau officials estimate that 27,000 homes and 46,000 people have been added to the nine counties in the Fayetteville area, while 29,000 homes and 101,000 people have been added to San Joaquin County, the area of the Stockton dress rehearsal.

The areas covered in the dress rehearsal will be canvassed again closer to 2010, along with the rest of the U.S., and a second dress rehearsal in the same locations is scheduled for September, Murray said. In addition to address verification, the handhelds will be used for follow-up calls on homes that have not sent in written census questionnaires. Workers can enter the answers to those questions into the handhelds and they will be transmitted wirelessly. It's expected that about one-third of all residents will not return a questionnaire.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon