Census Bureau still counting on handhelds for 2010 tally

It's planning its first rollout of the hardware in May

The U.S. Census Bureau's planned $600 million rollout of handheld computers is scheduled to start in May, when the agency expects to deploy 1,400 devices for use in updating addresses in preparation for the 2010 census.

A Census Bureau spokesman and officials at the project's prime contractor, Harris Corp., said this week that the handheld deployment, which was announced last April, is moving forward on schedule. The agency plans to eventually roll out 500,000 devices.

Harris demonstrated the handhelds to 50 Census Bureau officials on Dec. 14, transmitting data over a Sprint wireless network, said Mike Murray, vice president of census programs at the vendor's government communications systems division. Murray said that during May and June, the initial 1,400 handhelds to be delivered will be used in a dress rehearsal of address updates in two test markets.

As the rollout progresses, the devices will be used to update addresses nationwide in 2009 and will then be used in 2010 to input information during a canvass of homes whose residents fail to submit paper census surveys, according to Murray. In all, census takers equipped with the handhelds might visit 50 million homes, he said.

Census Bureau officials have been requesting changes in the functionality of the handhelds "almost daily," Murray said. For example, the plans for the Field Data Collection Automation project originally called for the use of fingerprint authentication only. But a second level of end-user authentication has since been added: passwords.

The handhelds will run Windows Mobile 5.0 on hardware made by High Tech Computer Corp. in Taiwan. The devices are based on consumer technology that has been customized and made semirugged. They have a 10-hour battery and a cellular data radio. A phone line port is also being built in for backup purposes if wireless connections aren't available.

In addition, the handhelds will be equipped with Global Positioning System mapping information to help census takers find addresses. And to meet the Census Bureau's strict privacy requirements, all the data collected on the handhelds will be encrypted and census takers will be locked out of the operating system to prevent any private uses of the devices, Murray said.

Census Bureau officials have said the use of the handhelds will result in greater efficiency for field workers who traditionally have carried paper address lists. They also expect the project to save the government millions of dollars by shortening the time it takes workers to gather data, improving the information's accuracy and reducing the need to process paper census forms.

Harris has estimated that the new technology could enable the Census Bureau to save $1 billion in operating costs over four years. In all, the 2010 census is expected to cost more than $11 billion, nearly double the cost of the census done in 2000, according to congressional testimony.

The $600 million project budget covers the cost of developing and manufacturing the handhelds, plus the installation of secure wireless capabilities and related technology at 13 data centers and nearly 500 field offices, Murray said.

The Census Bureau spokesman declined to comment in detail about the handheld project. He also wouldn't address questions about potential funding issues, beyond referring back to congressional testimony last July in which Census Bureau Director Louis Kincannon said that recent legislative actions were forcing the agency "to question key operational and design considerations" for projects such as the handheld rollout.

In July, the U.S. House and Senate both passed proposed fiscal 2007 budgets that reduced the White House's funding request for the Census Bureau. But none of the reductions have taken effect because Congress later approved a continuing resolution that keeps the federal budget at the same levels it was at during fiscal 2006 through Feb. 15.

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has questioned the need for the handheld program and criticized the Census Bureau for not putting census surveys online. "It's ludicrous not to move the census online," said John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn. "Millions of people already file their taxes online."

But Murray said many Americans still have no access to the Internet and likely wouldn't find their way to a library to file an online census report, making personal visits by census takers -- and the handheld project -- important.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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